Midpoint Reflections

January 15th, 2020 report

This year has shown that there is not a terrestrial ecosystem in the world that can escape fire. Since beginning this ambiguous journey six months ago, wildfires have ravaged at all latitudes and without requisites for ecotypes. Biomes that have been starved of fire, such as Boreal forests of Siberia and Canada, were met with excessive waves of fire, and those that evolved without the presence of fire, in the tropical zones of Amazonia and Indonesia, experienced an overwhelming threat from flames.  Again my home landscape in the southern California chaparral underwent its annual cycle of self-combustion and pandemonium, only this time I had to observe it from across an ocean. At this moment, the world watches in disbelief as Australia, renowned for its wildfire knowledge and capacity, is exhausted and battered by its pre-season conflagration overload. The globe on fire in the past six months has solicited many sentiments and each new report of a country under wildfire distress further exacerbates my passion to understand. In the light of further trespasses against our landscapes and our planet, these volatile symptoms will only grow.

During this quarter, I discovered many lessons and experiences while traversing Europe’s Mediterranean region, primarily in Portugal, Catalonia, and briefly Greece. My travels in this world within a world yielded conversations and lessons rooted in loss, but with underlying strength of character to raise their own resiliency and exchange their knowledge with those entering unknown territory. Southern Europe has experienced significant losses of life and property in the past two years, with  rising trends apparent over the past several decades; a corresponding relationship with the depletion of economic value of Mediterranean forests and subsequent human migrations away from rural areas towards urban centers. The result is a loss of stewardship that had maintained a fragile balance of human, land, and fire for centuries. Evolved around the influence of intensive grazing, agriculture, and land-use, its sudden removal has driven the overgrowth of forests in which fire now reigns. The countries of southern Europe are engaged in a struggle that stems from their relationship to their land and are in the midst of developing new approaches and strategies to remediate their discrepancies.  From the ashes of the damage, innovative champions, conversations, and action are stepping forward to forge a new course of reconciliation with wildfire.

In contrast, nations in northern Europe have recently been exposed to a daunting glimpse into their future of fire. Climate change and other environmental factors have introduced countries such as Wales, Sweden, England, Germany, and the Netherlands to more aggressive fire behavior than previously prepared for. Out of instinctual fear, many are beginning to fall for the “firefighting trap” of investing in response capabilities instead of recognizing the deeper mechanisms at play. Those that are focused on procuring more airplanes and fire trucks, instead of recognition that our landscapes and atmosphere are need of holistic management and care. However, there are rational voices calling for reexaminations, to learn from one another and exchange experiences, to be proactive and practice ecological intelligence. During my travels in Europe this quarter, I was able to meet both the voices calling for answers, and those that are willing to share the lessons that have been learnt at great costs.

As a firefighter, the importance of experiences and compiling an internal database of “lessons learned” has been instilled with me since the beginning. There is a reason that when firefighters introduce themselves to one another, they typically follow their names up with the number of years that they have been “in fire”. The significance of experience is not lost on me, and while I may not be the strictest adherent to this ideology in regard to environmental management, it has been a goal of mine to extract as much knowledge and insights from my experiences. Whether it be good, bad, complex, or basic lessons; concepts ranging from recognizing a disruptive yearning to always be exploring the next opportunity before the current one is finished, or simply leaving time for digestion is a crucial part of living. In many ways, I am trying my best to embody a philosophy of “winning or learning, never losing”.  A crucial, but supportive mindset that allows me to fail constantly as I try to understand the intricacies of solo international travel, professional networking, and the global conversation on fire. Needless to say, I learn every day.

One of the most crucial learning curves brought on during this lengthy, learning exploration has been the sudden thrust into wildfire professionalism. In the year lead up to my first flight from LAX, I had envisioned that my primary obstacle would be the accessibility of international and acclaimed researchers, environmental leaders, and even firefighters. This expectation has not been realized as even a poor explanation of a TJW fellowship is enough to solicit interest from almost anyone, however this in turn raises the expectations of the solicited for the solicitor. Operating and performing at the professional level has been one of my chief challenges and sources of internal uncertainty. In reflection, it is true that there have been positive indicators along the way: a European TV interview, an invitation to present a keynote address, and referrals to particular PhD programs here or there. However, these metrics provide little lasting support to the perception that I am engaging at a level that far exceeds my capacity. My positionality of having a triple perspective of fire as a survivor, firefighter, and researcher is a compelling story and fuels my own passion, but offers little substance at a higher professional level. Fast tracking my knowledge of wildfire and environmental governance from its lowly level of dirtbag firefighter to a level acceptable for international professionals has proven to my greatest hurdle.

The desire to remediate the human relationship with its environment allows me to continue placing myself in uncomfortable situations despite the unexpected challenges. It is becoming increasingly clear that the escalation of devastating wildfires is a symptom of the human inability to envision themselves as integrated members of ecology. The human perception of being a species removed from nature, but deeply involved in its management, is a flawed form of self-deception that is prohibiting the holistic vision of human and nature interconnectedness. The trend of wildfire complexities is occurring because the disruption of two relationships at differing orders of magnitude, the landscape and global scales, but stems from one troublesome pattern of thinking. In the wake of significant this year’s wildfire events, political and social debates occurred about the role of climate change versus improper land management practices. Brazil, Indonesia, California, and currently, Australia have all engaged in these heated political debates. The reality is that both sides are correct; human engagements with the landscape combined with the manipulation of the climate drive natural hazard, and it is erroneous to differentiate these impacts of our modern world.  The nature of the TJW often incites questions about my future, and while I am unaware of the profession  I seek even exists at this time, it is my belief that the development of humanity’s ecological intelligence is at its core.

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