Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 006: WILDFIRES

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: This is Jared Blumenfeld. Welcome to Podship Earth. This week's episode is on wildfires.

 

FEMALE VOICE: It was a really hot night and October. It was really unusual, and it was at least 80 degrees and really high winds, and it just felt a little odd…

 

NEWSCAST: …transformer explosion, structure fire, multiple callers...

 

FEMALE VOICE: It was just crazy. And we live in a hilly area. Everything was just ripping by. And so that night we went to sleep, and my daughter ended up waking us up saying, you know, I think there's something that you should know. And we went out on our back deck and all the neighbors are up and you know-

MALE VOICE: I was warm. It was windy. The house was rattling, and we smelled smoke, so around midnight, we walked outside and looked and saw the hills burning. We would look maybe 20, 30 miles away, so I think it's coming from over there. Then all of a sudden you look out another window and the sky is glowing, a pinkish orange color.

 

FEMALE VOICE: Nobody told us to leave. There were no firemen knocking on our door. We left based on a feeling that something wasn't right.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: People from around the world with transfixed by the scale and horror of wildfires that ravage California's wine country last October. These massive fires which blacked the skies for weeks became the most destructive, wildfires in modern Californian history, leveling 8,889 structures and taking the lives of 42 people while causing more than a billion dollars in damage.

 

This week, I traveled to the town of Santa Rosa, which was at the destructive epicenter of the fires. I met up with four Sonoma county residents, two of whom - Lori Barekman and Lauren Martin - lost their houses and all their possessions in the fire. A biologist Caitlin Cornwall from the Sonoma Ecology Center was monitoring nature's response to the fires and Kenny Martin Lawrence, Lauren’s uncle, who personally battled the fires in his neighborhood. We now live in a world where floods, fires, mudslides, droughts and storms have become more intense and frequent. It's our emotional and physical response to these disasters that I went to Santa Rosa to understand. Let's start by talking with Lauren Martin about what was going on right before she left her home for the last time. But had you heard on the radio, I mean, had you seen the fires, like how did you get sent?

 

LAUREN MARTIN: They heard someone on a megaphone going through the neighborhood below us in the valley. So, when our friends left he said, hey, could you just tell me what those people on the megaphone were saying? And they couldn't hear so they said, I'm sure you're fine, just stay home. And if we had stayed home, I mean, by the morning our house was totally burned to the ground and the trees burned for days after that because the firemen had to prioritize people's lives. They were out rescuing people. So, it really happened very quickly. I've heard from other people that the winds were moving so fast that people were in their homes and they would see the fire on the horizon and before they could get their things together, their roof was on fire. It was that fast.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Lori Barekman, who is a physical therapist and a mother of two teenagers, had a sense of the scale of the fires right from the get-go.

 

LORI BAREKMAN: I knew when I saw it, I knew everything was going to go. I knew we weren't going to come back to stuff. It moved so fast and you could just, I mean, it was a wall of flames. I threw blankets in the car and maybe a pillow or two, and stuffed animal. For sure it was within a mile – Unfortunately, lots of people have had much more horrifying things where things are on fire around them, you know? We do have friends who didn't make it on the fire. It was unstoppable. I'm was really windy, so for us it was like, we just have to leave now.

 

NEWSCAST: Smoke fills the air. Neighborhood after neighborhood evacuated as these fires rage. Here in Santa Rosa, the fire, zero percent containment. Eventually hundreds of families will return to see their homes destroyed, devastated by wildfires that are raging through California's wine country.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Lauren's uncle Kenny help battle the flames for days. I asked him what he saw when he first got back to his house

 

UNCLE KENNY: Not just a little fire.  It was still burning pretty big around the property, so I drove away thinking we're going to lose our homes. Well, I came back an hour later and apparently, we had some help from the fireman who controlled the fire. So, at that point I look around, there's smoke smoldering, few little, small fire pocket fires burning. Just decided it was time, you know, we survive the catastrophe, let's not lose it after the fact. So, the first 48 hours was full-time mostly with the shovel, putting out little things, and some neighbors had garden hoses left out in their driveway so we were able to put some fires out. But it was 10 days of all night long, all day long, maybe sneaking in a couple hours sleep here and there, of just patrolling the neighborhood.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Lori, after fleeing the flames, where did you and your family spend the night?

 

LORI BAREKMAN: In the parking lot, in the mall because that it was, you know, where else do you go? And we needed somewhere where we can tell my mother-in-law were going to be here. So, we sat there and watched the hill burn.  We watched, we heard all the propane tanks exploding. There was an ammunition store that blew up and all the ammunition was going off, but you know there was a lot of people who gathered there with trailers, with horses, lots of people with their cars or their dogs. That kind of stuff. Because again, it was a lot of cement around you, so you're like, okay, I'm pretty sure that this isn't going to burn.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And at that point, I mean the scale of the tragedy was unfolding, were you aware of what was happening or were you just focus on kind of making it through the day?


 

LORI BAREKMAN: For the whole county, it went on for the entire week, went from fire to fire to fire.  What we spent our time doing after that was trying to tell people one suitcase by the front door is not being packed. If this comes your way, you're going to lose everything. You have a choice. Pack up what's really valuable to you and you know, things are things, but there's certain stuff that, it just, especially the sentimental things. Like for my mother in law, she's 82. She does incredible needlework. Everything her husband had, you know, he's deceased, she doesn't have any of that anymore. It's just, it's gone. But that was countywide for so many people for a week and it just went on and on and on and that was the most difficult thing. Everybody was affected and so many people lost jobs and places and just, you know overall. We moved from one place, ended up back away from there and you know, and on and on.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What did it feel like when you saw the wreckage of your house?

 

LAUREN MARTIN: I actually didn't get to see my home for a few days because it was all blocked off.  But I burst into tears. It was very emotional. You know, we had all of our wedding registry there and my husband's tuxedo from the wedding. We just got our lives together, we luckily took our cats and our laptops and a few photos with us, but you know, all those little things that um, you don't remember until you go to get them. So, we were evacuated for at least a month. It's not really heartrending in the sense that you've lost stuff because we were just really grateful to be alive. But it's really disorienting. It's hard to wrap your head around such a big change. I can't imagine waking up after that morning and going, okay, I don't have money to get clothes. I don't have money to get food, you know, whatever it is. Like we, we had this support that most people did not have living.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Where are you living now Lauren?

 

LAUREN MARTIN: Now we're living in an RV about two minutes down the hill from here. We're all set up there with our three cats in the RV.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Lori, I remember waking up in San Francisco and hardly being able to breathe. What was it like in Santa Rosa?

 

LORI BAREKMAN: It was actually the worst in the world at the time. I know that I think it's through UC Davis they are going to be doing some studies on people and who was affected, and I would say like anecdotally some of my friends who are asthmatic, they still are dealing with issues lung wise from after the fire. It wasn't as bad, but yeah, the air quality was horrific. Yeah.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Of all the things that you lost in the fires, what do you miss the most?

 

LORI BAREKMAN: My best friend and I had written letters back and forth forever. And so, I had like two boxes of her letters because we thought, you know, when we're 90 and want to give ourselves a good laugh, we'll look back in the boxes and read letters to each other and crack up about that. We did take some photos and I write letters to my kids. I have some blank books, I write letters to my kids and that was by my bedside and I grabbed it. Those are a couple things, it was nice, my son who's 16 said, you know, mom, did you get those? And I said yes. The most horrific thing for me was my, my son's biological, my daughter is adopted. We had a safe but pretty much 99 percent of safes failed and a lot of her documents from her adoption did not fit in the safe.

 

And so, for me, waking up in the middle of night going, we don't have any pictures of her mother right now because we didn't take anything off the walls. So, we had no pictures of her and her birth mother and me and that was just horrendous. And so, the huge light for me is our safe made it; It survived it and everyone said it was impossible.  But it made it and the CD, the disc with our pictures from my daughter's mother survived. And that was the highlight because again, that's just, you can't replace that. And that was so horrifying to me to think that we had no record of that and you know, you can't replace it. So that was a bright light in our thing that it did survive. It honestly, it's nice on one level to not have, shall we say it's forced downsizing. It’s kind of the, you know that tongue and cheek phrase you learn the difference between need and want, we're not going to replace everything. It makes you think about every purchase.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So you may not feel this way, Lori, but just from the outside, you seem like a climate refugee. You're living with your mother and your whole family had to uproot and largely, you know, many people in Hurricane Katrina or Irma or Maria in Puerto Rico, you know, they're in the same place that you are. They don't have a home. They had one a few weeks ago or a year ago. And how does it feel to be in that position?

 

LORI BAREKMAN: Well, and I do feel like, you know, that climate is changing and of course one of the things we're looking at Sonoma county right now is what's, what's the rain? Because we're behind on rain this winter. And what does that affect everything? Literally, if you build in the same place again, how is that crazy? You know, because if the fire's going to burn again twice it’s burned in the same pattern.  But then hopefully again, you have new home standards, but there is some discussion of why are you building in an area that is going to be, you know, potentially the same fire stuff, especially given the fact I do believe, of course, climate change is part of the whole weather change, et cetera. And it was crazy weather the night that night.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Kenny, you’ve been at the epicenter of the worst wildfires in California history.  What’s the lesson for the future?

 

UNCLE KENNY: Well, between our fires in California, the hurricanes, it seems undeniable that there's climate change. I just don't remember this kind of disaster month after month, every year. It's just insane what's going on. There's no stopping mother nature. This was uncontrollable. It was crazy embers flying a mile ahead of the fire, starting fires and burning back towards it. I mean, you could have been given a 24 hour notice that the fire was coming. I don't think you could've done anything about it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: From Santa Rosa. I traveled a few miles east to the rolling hills of Sonoma to meet with Caitlin Cornwall to discuss what nature can teach us about the fires. Caitlin, tell me a little bit about what you do.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: I run the research program at the Sonoma Ecology Center and we are walking toward a reservoir that burned all the way around it and the whole surrounding area burned and we're looking at really how the land is recovering from the fire. And it's a very interesting contrast between the emotional devastation and trauma and insecurity that the fire has put into people.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us a little bit about your background.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: I'm a biologist and I've been working at the ecology center for really long time, almost 20 years. This is the first fire that I and my colleagues have been through, so we've been learning like crazy since October and have been really fascinated to see what has happened. So, you hear people saying this was a super high intensity event or an unprecedented event, but that's just not true.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But doesn't it seem like big fires happening with much greater frequency and with more intensity?

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: So, if the plants are drier and the winds are hotter, then a fire will spread farther and faster. And climate change then is correlated with a greater extent and intensity of fires, which is very similar to climate changes correlation with other disturbances that we experience around here, like flooding. So it's not like floods are new, but what we can expect as climate change continues is that the intensity of damaging floods will increase.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In conjunction with climate change or changing climate, we are also becoming more isolated from and forgetful of those things. Nature of fires or flooding. So, each time we see them, we're kind of surprised as if they were the first, when in fact they've happened for centuries.   I asked Lauren, who's still living in an RV if she now thought about the fires differently.

 

LAUREN MARTIN: I think about this a lot since the fire because I was already concerned about climate change. A lot of people in my generation aren't considering being parents, but I do think about having kids and what that means for the future generation, whether it's my children or other people's children. And it's so real when it's in your face, when you can feel the heat of the trees around you burning. I mean, when we went up to our house, I didn't mention that everything was still burning. I can now see that the trees are coming back a little bit, so there is this feeling that nature knows how to recuperate. And even a few weeks after the fire, there were all of these little seedlings coming up in the ashes. And so, there's like heartbreak because like, oh, I know those ashes are full of lead and asbestos from our old house, but also nature is doing its thing. I've been reading this book about traditional ecological knowledge and trying to learn about what did people do pre-European contact for this land. And burning was a big part of that.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: As we walked through an ecosystem that has been adapted to fire, I thought that Caitlin Cornwall of the Sonoma Ecology Center would be an excellent person to help me understand the history of fire on the landscape.


 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: As far as we know, the native Californians who lived here have been using fire as a land management tool for somewhere in the range of 10 or 15,000 years. And so, this array of different forest and grass and shrub that is so pleasing to the eye is created in part by fire. If we had not had fire here historically, we would be seeing a different landscape. One of the things people love about this area is this sort of dappled light that comes through the oaks and also the wild flowers that bloom. You don't get wild flowers without light reaching the ground and that's one of the reasons why after a fire you see so much blooming.  It just sort of gives these strong signals to our brain like yes, healthy, happy, but we're also seeing when you zoom in a little bit, a ton of bulbs coming up and bulbs are stimulated by fire. What we are seeing is a whole nice crop of California buttercup with their cheerful, shiny yellow petals, and this is another counterintuitive thing. People expect to see more dead stuff in the burned area than in the unburned area, but in this case, and this is true for a lot of California, the burned area has no remains of all the dead grass that was there from last year and so it actually looks fresher and lusher and greener than the unburned area here on our left.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's amazing. If you told me the opposite was true, I'd say, right. This looks, this looks like the area that wasn't burned.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: We've stopped here to look at a couple of young madrone trees. So. madrones are really beautiful. After the fires, all of their leaves were still on the tree, but they were fried. They looked the same color basically as the bark, so orange and curled and dead still on the tree, but dead. And they looked awful for a few months.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I would have thought with the madrone that it was just dead.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: Yeah, right. That's what it looks like in the first months after the fire, just millions of dead trees, which was so tragic and heartbreaking and just reinforced people's feeling like this was an unmitigated catastrophe. And then little by little, these sprouts started coming out. It's a completely different thing to see it, to feel it, to touch the new leaves and it's inspiring and heartwarming to see how much capacity for rejuvenation is out here on the land. And the reason oak trees have thick bark is because they all come from places in the world that have frequent fires. You hear people saying this was a super high intensity event or an unprecedented event, but that's just not true.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Or it may be true for how they experienced it, but for the majority of the fire, it behaved differently.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: The fire burned much more intensively around our houses.  Our houses are much more flammable than the forest at large. And you can really see that now; the trees that were near burnt buildings have a much higher death rate than the burnt trees that are out in wildlands. The houses generated temperatures beyond what was going on out in the forest. And that's a very hard thing to get our heads around that the stuff we make is more flammable and generates higher temperatures than the land as a whole. And we could probably change that if we built our buildings differently.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Since I knew that Lori was planning to rebuild her family home in Santa Rosa, I asked her how her new house is going to be different than the old one.

 

LORI BAREKMAN: Well, some of the code things now are you have to have sprinkler systems in your house. And my understanding is I've learned something new about how fire brings your house down. It generally goes up the walls through the venting into your attic and then your attic goes on fire and that collapses the house.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: There are a huge array of opportunities right now when people are rebuilding from nothing.  They can make more future oriented choices about whether they want to power their house with solar and not even necessarily need power lines. You know, new houses are vastly more energy efficient and new landscaping can be vastly more water efficient. So, there's a whole range of ways that people can rebuild in such a way that their footprint is smaller than it was before. But if people are going to continue to live out in those areas, they're still not going to be able to get rid of that fire danger just based on their location. Of course, the design and construction of the house can make it more fire resistant. But, in those cases have really severe wind driven fire, there's very little that can that can give you 100 percent assurance.

JARED BLUMENFELD: In terms of biomimicry, if we're going to replicate some of the defenses that nature has in new home construction, are there elements that you would put forward?

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: That is a really interesting way to put it on. If you think about an oak tree, it's very well insulated by its bark, so that would translate maybe into building structures, whereas just the exterior surfaces are not flammable and where they can take a lot of heat before stuff on the inside. What you come up with is a lot more arguments to add to the already long list of reasons why we should cluster our development more tightly and leave natural areas more natural. The most dangerous thing in a fire prone area is for isolated residences, for example, to be out surrounded by a flammable vegetation and only reached by a long, narrow winding road. Stringing electricity out to these remote areas is probably one of the reasons that we had so many fires.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Back in Santa Rosa with Lauren, I asked her if her relationship with nature has changed as a result of her experience with the fires.

 

LAUREN MARTIN: I was thinking today about the fact that we called it a wildfire, but it wasn't a wildfire.  It was started by a power line. So, there's this weird awareness that it was a natural phenomenon; it was the wind and the power of the wind that burned all these houses down.  But also, we are causing these things to happen at the same time. And I knew on that night that 80 degrees with 80 mile an hour winds, was not October weather for Sonoma county here in northern California. You know, it was hot and dry.  We've had a drought for years and we got some rain last year which caused a lot of brush to grow, but it doesn't seem like we're in a balanced enough relationship with that brush growth. We're not burning it down enough for doing what we need to clear it.


 

There’s definitely the feeling of realizing how small you are as a human being when a force of nature is working in your community, you know, just changing everybody's lives in an instant. I think that returning to an awareness of the environment around us is really important and I also am recognizing like how reciprocal our relationship is with nature. It's reciprocal in the sense that nature controls whether we live or die, you know, a fire can come through and burn down everything, but it's also reciprocal I think in ways that we can give back. Like all I had to do was go and cut off a branch of a willow tree and stick it in water and there's a tree. It really is possible to have a relationship with nature, but we always kind of think and science tells us, leave nature alone. I'm like in a personal inquiry about how can we awaken or reawaken people? You know, that feeling when you were worried that your house might burn down and that nature controls and try not to just get locked back into the nine to five and not forget about it because we can all

take on a like little pieces of that awareness.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I think California Governor Jerry Brown does an excellent job of helping contextualize the fires.

 

JERRY BROWN: We're facing a new reality in the state where fires threaten people's lives, the property, their neighborhoods. We dwell in this a very wonderful place, but a place that's getting hotter and we know from the changing climate, that it's going to exacerbate everything else.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The governor's comments made me wonder if the biologist, Caitlin Cornwall, thought that we need to shift the way we think about the environment.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: Definitely. We're always in danger of sort of seeing the natural world or the natural parts of the landscape as just sort of a static backdrop that sort of just affects us visually, when in fact, of course it's very dynamic. It's just dynamic on a timescale that is a little long for some of us. It has movement, it has patterns, it has disturbance, it has extremes.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, on a personal level, Caitlin, have you been more in demand because of people wanting to understand the nature around them after the fires?

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: People are really hungry for information that helps them interpret this event. So, it's been really wonderful to try to meet that demand for knowledge. People are paying attention to the “out there,” people who never really paid much attention to those hills up there. These fires made them feel like what happened out there matters to them, which is a great thing for us to see and we're trying to help people go one step further to feel like, if we as a society take a more active role in understanding and taking care of those places out there, it will be good for us in many different ways.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There’s an amazing outpouring of community spirit during and after the fires. How do you make that last?

 

LAUREN MARTIN: Now that the smoke has cleared, you know, everyone goes back to being entitled and hurrying around and I think it's really important not to get back into that mentality of, “Oh, this didn't happen to me, so I'm going to forget about it” because clearly, there have been some really big shifts in our local climate and  a huge adjustment for so many people. I just feel like empathy is going to need to be given and regiven for years because it will take a long time for people to recover it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Lori, what are the key lessons that your kids have taken away from these horrific fires?

 

LORI BAREKMAN: I hope that one thing my kids would draw from this as empathy. I'm actually my daughter is applying to the new school program that we hope she goes in. She had to write an essay and she had to write an essay on, what does it mean to be part of a community and that's really what it comes down to because on some level it's the people around that are going to help pick you up. And you know, everything from, you know, give you a meal to like even the clothes that I'm wearing right now, at least several things I'm wearing are things that people gave me.  But it's just that feeling that there is support around you in terms of that, and that's where I like seeing that people really truly want to help each other out. And for us, we've also done some things where it's like, you pass it on, that's what going to make the world go round, you know, so everybody helps out in their own way and you pass it on.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: As Caitlin and I finished up our walk, it started to rain, and it was hard to imagine that less than six months ago, this was the scene of California's most damaging wildfire. I asked Caitlin if she knew how much of the life under our feet would sprout up this

spring.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: I've talked to a handful of the best botanists in this area asking, you know, what are going to be the special plants that come back after this fire in these places that burnt more intensely. And they told me that there aren't lists. We don't know. They said, well, you've just got to really be on the lookout and they're going to be on the lookout to. So that's kind of exciting. There's so many impulses that people have after a fire like this that turn out to be the wrong thing to do. And it's a lot of, it's just because none of us have been through something like this before. So, for example, a lot of the trees, especially around people's houses, they look, they look dead, they looked terrible. They’re black. The vast majority of trees in the vast majority of the burned area will survive. So, we're asking people not to cut the burnt vegetation down unless it does actually pose a, a possible danger. Generally, it's a really good time to just walk around and see what's, what the land already knows how to do. It's quite inspiring and thought provoking and fascinating. And if we can turn our feelings from fear and sort of unease and instead get interested in what's happening out on the land, it'll be better for the land and I will be better for us too.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, in some ways the fires helped to reconnect us to nature.

 

CAITLIN CORNWALL: The fires have reconnected us to nature and, and we're trying to help sort of connect those two different emotional reactions so that people can have a more nuanced understanding of what fire is. That it's not just, it's not just one thing. It's not just a thing that creates loss and it's not just a thing that those trees out there like. There's sort of a shared idea that we went through a crisis and we're coming out changed and the nature of the change feels to them more, more interesting, more hopeful, more complex in a good way. We have stores of resilience in us and that our communities can be resilient. That will make us stronger and happier, more, more connected, more grounded.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much to Caitlin Cornwall, Lori Barekman, Lauren Martin and Kenny Martin for talking with us today and to Brenna Sheldon who grew up in the area of the fires, for introducing me to so many extraordinary people. What I took away from talking with people who've lived through such insanely testing times, is that after losing everything, we go through a period of rebirth in which both us and the rest of the natural world often comes back stronger, more resilient and changed in ways that we will not understand for years and even decades. Change is the one constant in all our lives and as the climate changes, our ability to adapt will be tested in ways that will provide both inspiration and heartache. I also learned from the fires that having a plan in place was critical.  When the shit hits the fan, you need a plan. I know it sounds like some bullshit from the Cold War, but a good old-fashioned plan can make the difference between life and death.

 

Here's what I've done with my family and what I know works. Step one. With your family or household members, discuss how's it’s prepared to respond to the type of emergencies that are most likely to happen where you live, learn, work, and play. Discussing these key questions to start your emergency plan will really help. How will I receive emergency alerts and warnings? What's my shelter plan? What's my evacuation route?  What’s my family household communications plan? Step two, identify responsibilities for each member of your household and how you work together as a team. Consider specific needs in your household. Step three, actually fill out a plan. I have attached a template to this episode's webpage. And four, practice as many elements of the plan as you can. Next week we're going to try and work out the environmental impacts and benefits of blockchain and cryptocurrencies and talk with Stanley Johnson, the environmentalist, novelist, and father of the British Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, about Brexit. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, editor Rob Spate, producer, Nancy Ferranti, guest producer Zach Santella, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld. Have a very safe week.