Thursday, December 14, 2017

Goodbye and farewell to 2017

In a Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by wildfire, residents display their sentiments. By Faith Kearns.
It's been a long year, for me and most everybody I know. And, it's been almost a year since posting anything here, though I've tried to stay productive elsewhere.

The year started with some good news on the water front. We saw at least a pause in the California drought in late 2016/2017, and now we're waiting with baited breath to see what happens this winter. So far, it's not much in terms of rain or snow. And, as most folks know, what we've ended up with instead is a whole lot of out-of-season fire instead.

I really didn't set out to be a person that works primarily on disaster issues, but much of the last dozen years have been focused on two of the biggies in California: wildfire and drought, which are deeply connected. Many people that know me through the California Institute for Water Resources don't know I also spent many years at the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley, working with some of the top fire researchers in the state and country. Along with Steve Quarles, Max Moritz, Scott Stephens, and lots of others, I co-developed many of the tools that still exist there. There's a story that to tell about how that work has and hasn't evolved since and what it means for the state at this point, but that will have to wait for another day and a more private location.

At a community meeting in Sonoma County, residents discussed not just rebuilding, but reimagining their community. Photo by Faith Kearns.
In these dozen years, a lot has changed. Watching the difference between how people -- particularly first responders but also communities -- are talking about fires, particularly after the Santa Rosa fires and now continuing with those down south, spurred a few tweets. Those led to an email from Eric Simons, the editor of Bay Nature, asking if I wanted to formalize those thoughts in an article. The result is slated to be in their print publication in January, but because of the fires in southern California, they decided to release it online a bit early (thanks to Eric Holthaus for the shout out in Rolling Stone). I'd written before about some of the emotional components of working on fire at On Being, and this year has been no different, particularly since I'd left Santa Rosa -- where I'd been talking about fire -- just hours before the fires started and know so many people directly affected.

A burned out area of Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen. Though burned, many of the oak trees will likely live, and grasses had already started to sprout soon after the fire. Photo by Faith Kearns.
There were a couple of pieces to that Bay Nature story that I wanted to be able to tell but wasn't able to, for various reasons. One was an amazing account from a citizen that I still hope to find a way to help publish -- there is unending grace in so many survivor stories. The other -- which I tweeted about -- was that I also talked with Edward Willie, native ecologist of Pomo, Wintu, Paiute & Wailak ancestory. He said that the area where the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa burned has always been known to his people to be fire prone, with big fires every ~50 years (and, there had indeed been a previous fire in the same area in 1964, history repeats). They had long tended dogbane -- a plant for rope-making that thrives in burned areas -- there. There is still a small dogbane patch in Santa Rosa. He said, with such heart, that area was where you tend dogbane, not where you live, which is a valuable thing to know.

That tweet led to another online conversation with Jared Dahl Aldern (@JaredDahlAldern), Kayla Begay (@takimilxwe), and some other folks that resulted in the start of a reading list about Native fire practice in California. It's a great resource, best when coupled with being in active relationship with tribal communities and individuals.

Scenes like this one from Glen Ellen, where some houses burned to nothing but foundations and fireplaces and others remained largely untouched, can lead to a sense that house burn "randomly." Photo by Faith Kearns.
Additionally, as the Thomas Fire started in Ventura County, I was inspired to write a piece about some of the research that we did over a decade ago that provides a lot of insight about home ignitions during wildfires. I wanted to address the issue of how actually non-random houses burning is so that we stop just throwing our hands up in the air over things that, for once, do have some actual solutions. Many articles I read are still tending to focus solely on wildlands and suppression issues -- not home construction -- which is deeply unfortunate. The article published at The Conversation, and happily, CBS News, CityLab, Salon, and some other venues also picked it up so maybe the ideas will get out more broadly.

"The love in the air is thicker than the smoke" -- a common refrain during and after the California fires. Photo by Faith Kearns.
On a different note, I'm happy to report that my colleagues Ted Grantham, Susie Kocher, Tapan Pathak, Leslie Roche, and I were also able to publish the results of a survey that we did with our University of California Cooperative Extension colleagues to better understand their/our needs around both continuing and furthering our climate change work. Led by Susie, we also received funding to do a climate change workshop, which is coming up quickly. I will focus on climate communication there, using some of the work that I wrote about relational approaches to contentious environmental issues and have had the good fortune to be working with people on quite a bit this year. I'm also really excited to bring my friends from the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, which I wrote about last year, to run a salon with my colleagues -- worlds colliding in the best of ways.

Finally, I continued to do quite a lot of writing at The Confluence, our water institute blog. A highlight for me was being able to follow up on my last post here, doing interviews with two of the scholars I wrote about briefly there. The first set was with anthropologist Casey Walsh who had some fantastic insights on both the nature of drinking and bathing water, as well as power dynamics around groundwater. The second set was with Melanie Yazzie, a new faculty member at UC Riverside. It was wonderful to have the chance to talk with her about the water is life movement and what she calls a "radical politics of relationality," as well as about the tensions and possibilities around tribal sovereignty today. I also loved writing about my colleague Laura Snell's work on controversial wild horse issues in northern California. What is required of scientists these days is so much more than you could ever be taught in school. There is much to be learned in all of those conversations.

By now, I've said way too much. I guess I was trying to process what happened professionally this year myself. The tone feels odd in the midst of so much hardship, but continuing to see the beauty feels important too. There is much left unsaid here that I've tried to address in some of the links above, as well as daily on Twitter and Facebook. The richness and nuance and suffering and connection and everything in between are incredible to bear witness to. So many stories that have to wait. Until then, wishing everyone some rest and rejuvenation in December.

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