As the Kinkade fire ravaged northern Sonoma County, synagogues around the world were reading about Noah and “ha-mabul”, the great flood, the archetype of natural disasters.
According to the Torah God brought the flood to cleanse the earth of, “lawlessness” or “violence”. “God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:13). The story of Noah is often imagined as a quaint child’s tale; the animals make their way safely to the ark “two by two”, and together with Noah and his family they are saved from the flood. A more sober look at this cosmic reboot paints a different story of utter destruction and leaves us with the haunting question; did the violence and lawlessness of some justify the destruction of everyone and everything?
The Torah is not a history book and it’s theology of a punishing God willing to wipe out all life – the innocent and the guilty – is an anathema to us. Nevertheless, when we view the story in the harsh light of our own experience one lesson emerges from the ancient waters of the great flood; how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are, how some wind and a spark can take everything away and in a heartbeat.
Impermanence is the Buddhist term for this life’s truth, and the festival of Sukkot we just commemorated also reflects this reality; the Sukkah, the flimsy, temporary dwelling symbolizing the fragility of life. In both religious/philosophic frameworks, it takes a lot of courage (and practice) not to be frightened (shaken to one’s core) by yet another immensely destructive and dangerous wild fire.
We are grateful that this fire was not as deadly and destructive as the last, but our gratitude is mitigated by the sobering realization that these kinds of fires, power outages and fearful nights waiting in the dark seem to be our “new normal”. The Torah’s explanation of the flood is simple: violence, but the causes of our crisis are the opposite: a complex array of issues that under certain condition coalesce into a “perfect fire storm”.
PG&E’s negligence in not maintaining the power lines is high on the list but we also need to take some responsibility for choosing to live in the beautiful but fire prone hills of Sonoma County. And of course, Climate Change looms large in the background. The Noah story ends with the reassurance of the rainbow, a sign “that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Gen. 14:9) We have no rainbow like fix; the supernatural will not save us, but we can work to save ourselves through preparedness and adaption.
We were more prepared this time and what a difference that made! As difficult as the evacuations were, many of us are still traumatized by the lack of warning we experienced in 2017 and we are the ones who actually got out alive! In this fire, no one that I am aware of was caught unaware by the fire. Preparedness was especially evident in the work of the First Responders and Cal Fire. By all accounts their extraordinary responses saved the towns of Healdsburg and Windsor and prevented the fire from jumping the freeway, saving West County from what would have been an unimaginable catastrophe. We have a ways to go but the advances evident in the response to this fire show that we can and are becoming more effective in dealing with the threat of wild fires.
The Power Outages are a more complex and controversial response; would they be necessary if PG& E did the required maintenance work? What drives their decision to cut power to some and not to others? Why was the one line that sparked the Kincade fire on when the others around it were off? In many ways PG& E fails the preparedness test, but it does seem that some power outages may be part of being prepared going forward. Nevertheless, we need to work with our elected officials to hold PG& E’s “feet to the fire” and demand that they do more to make our power grid safe.
Adaption is our biggest challenge because it demands that we change some of our basic assumptions and the way we live. Many of us moved to Sonoma County to get away from the crowds and live in the country. Are we ready to rethink building in these more rural and fire prone areas? I’m not sure but we can at least change the standards so that the homes we build are as fire resistant as possible.
And what about the power, assuming some power outages are necessary? Even if a generator in every home was feasible, it is an environmental nightmare! Solar systems with batteries are promising but only for the relatively affluent. One way or another we can survive the power outages but can we thrive? The cost of the outages in lost revenue and wages is estimated to be approximately 2 billion dollars! Sonoma County is a wonderful place to live but will its natural beauty and charm be enough to keep the businesses and the people they employee here if debilitating wild fires become a regular part of life in the region? We need PG& E’s help and we also need to encourage innovation beyond what they can offer like micro grids, that can keep the lights on the next time to wind picks up and there is a fire or a threat of a fire.
We also need to remember the disproportionate cost these fires have on those who can’t simply rent a hotel room, afford to eat out, easily replenish their spoiled food or manage without a paycheck. When we think of adaption we have to consider how the most vulnerable can be made more secure in these times of insecurity. Contributing to the Redwood Empire Food Bank is a great place to start. There is also Undocufund which was set up after the 2017 fires specifically for the immigrant community who were left out of much of the relief provided for the rest of the population. Our partners in Organizing, The North Bart Organizing Project are also engaged in helping the most vulnerable recover from the fires in 2017 and now the Kincade fire as well.
We could say that Noah was prepared – he did build the ark and gather a representative sample of all life – and he did adapt, at least while floating in the ark. The story of Noah as history seems silly to me but it does resonate as a metaphor for what we have to do; reduce the threat of wild fires through preparation and adaption, so that we don’t just survive but thrive in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.