Where There's Smoke
Adults keep saying: "We owe it to the young people to give them hope." But I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is."
-Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 25, 2019.
The Nanopoch Fire started on August 27, probably by a lightning strike. As I write, it has consumed about 100 acres of the Minnewaska State Park, just twenty minutes from the valley where I live in New Paltz, NY. I woke at 5 a.m. to the scent of smoke and the apocalyptic sound of helicopters, had a quick breakfast, and took a ride to the New Paltz Fire Station to try to interview a volunteer firefighter or two, but they must have been resting, as were their three dinosaur-sized vehicles. I wanted to ask, "So what's it been like for you these past few days?"
It's been all hands on deck as Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced a unified command: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers, staff volunteers, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Ulster County Emergency Services, the New York State Police Aviation—the helicopters—and the the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and local volunteer fire departments. That's what it takes to contain a wildfire.
I got back into my car and drove down Route 151 South to a building where I used to live; it has a deck overlooking the ridge. And there I saw it: smoke covering the valley like an old, smelly blanket. Inhaling the particulates from smoke is almost as dangerous as the fire itself, especially to young or damaged lungs.
This is the third wildfire in New York State this summer, albeit the worst so far. Like Hurricanes, they are given names, which I suppose makes them memorable for scientific purposes. On August 14, the Wanoksink Fire in Harriman State Park was contained within 34 acres. It took three days to graduate to "patrol status," meaning the fire had been contained, and was in a state of "mop-up," the firefighters walking every inch on foot to make sure it was out. Firefighters, by the way, are well trained, and they are brave, though we probably don't need reminding after 9/11.
Summer, 2022 fire #2 was on August 21, in Wawarsing, now known as the Losees Hill Fire. Rangers, assisted by several volunteer fire departments, worked on bulldozer lines to contain the fire to 2.5 acres and they did that in just a few hours. That was a relatively easy one.
But here's the upshot: climate change is here. These fires are yet another warning in an accumulation of warnings—torrential rains, flash flooding and other extreme weather events. The tinder under our hiking feet this summer has been bone dry. Every time a cloud passed during August we hoped for a few drops of rain. It was never enough.
Maybe a trip to the moon would satisfy now that we've made a mess of things here. No wonder there's so much excitement at NASA. Forgive me, but I'm not going to watch the launch of the new rocket. I'll be thinking about Greta's dream for Planet Earth instead and what we can we do day to day, each and every one of us, to contribute to her effort. Here's a list. Please feel free to add to it in the comments:
1. Compost. If you do not have a garden, find a pilot compost program. I live in an apartment complex—but I take my compost every couple of days to one of two communal compost piles. One is next to a communal garden, the other next to the Village Community Center Pollinator Garden.
2. Do not ride when you can walk, or bike. Save on fossil fuel and if you can afford it, go electric or hybrid. When you rent a car, ask if they have a hybrid or electric car.
3. Recycle, Do not put recycle items into a plastic bag; it will get thrown as is into the dump. Eliminate plastic bags as much as you can. Wash out your garbage pails.
4. Conserve water. Take shorter showers. There's a drought. Reservoirs are low. Water is not only needed for human--and animal and plant--survival, but to fight fires.