It isn’t exactly the kind of situation you go looking for, pitching your tent mere miles from a forest inferno, sleeping on the ground zipped up into a sleeping bag.
But it exactly what is happening in America right now. On the precipice of danger, finding a way to live.
Arriving at the fire
It was supposed to be a treat. At the end of our six-day wilderness hike, my friends and I booked a night at a hot spring resort. We planned to soak our trail-sore muscles, celebrate the adventure we shared, and relax in a peaceful setting. That was the idea, anyway.
When we arrived, the river canyon was choked with grayish-yellow smoke, at odds with its crystal blue waters and unblemished, old-growth forest. At check in, the reception staff told us we were fourteen miles from the fire, safe enough not to worry, and that officials were giving a presentation the next morning.
After we pitched our tents, my friend Carol looked up. A vertical column of smoke billowed, looking like a distant thunderhead, stark white against the blue sky above. “That’s a forest fire out of control,” she said matter-of-factly. We all stared skyward too, awed, sending up silent prayers for safety of the crew and wildlife.
Understanding what could be lost
This place in the forest has been my soul sanctuary for the twenty years I’ve lived in Oregon. I felt shaken that it could be imperiled, its wooden structures charred, and nothing left but running streams. This is the fate of beloved Harbin Hot Springs in California after a wildfire last year. As we took a refreshing dip in a cool pool of water, I couldn’t push away the images I’d seen of ghostly blackened outlines where buildings once stood. Not here.
That night, I slept poorly on my ultralight mattress, woken around four by the smell of acrid, wet smoke like a doused campfire. I sleepily mused that nighttime firefighting might be dumping water to extinguish flames. And went back to sleep.
I know this must sound like insanity. Willingly sleeping in the very forest ablaze. But I tested my mettle three years previous, when Mary and I camped on the Metolius River with another fire nearby. In equally smoky air, ash fell on us all weekend, Mother Nature carelessly flicking her cigarette wherever she pleased.
All weekend I wondered, Should I be concerned? Are we in danger? But the posted daily map and fire bulletins describing the tactics reassured me.
Knowing the plan
In the cool, hazy morning, we lingered over the breakfast buffet, slurped our coffee, and wandered into the large tent area to listen to the presentation.
Fire officials from four different agencies—county staff, National Forest, incident response, and county fire team showed up, identifiable by their camel or green collared shirts and few large oval NF belt buckles. Pointing to the large maps for reference, each group took a turn speaking about weather and terrain, strategies and contingencies, the number of crews and equipment on the ground. They spoke respectfully about the other agencies and their collaboration with the retreat center staff. I was impressed.
Fear prevents planning
During the talk, a woman in the front row erratically stood up and sat down again twice. I’d met her on a path earlier that day and commented on the smoke. The intensity of her eyes burned fury. “They told me at the office that the fire was contained. It’s not.” She formed an O with her hand. “Zero percent.” Her anger brought a sinking feeling in my stomach.
As the meeting proceeded, she gasped audibly, swatting her hand through the air. The woman stood again and walked into a nearby building. On returning a few minutes later, she was wearing a light blue dust mask, fidgeting with the straps to fit snugly across her face. Sitting down again in front, she gripped her knees. Was she even hearing the presentation? She seemed deeply anxious, in a contrast with the speakers and others in attendance.
I feared for her well-being, and could also relate to the deep anxiety and stress that comes from being at risk and not having control. Our brain says,There’s a fire! Stop talking and run! Get to safety! Do something!! In times of urgency, being still and looking around for assistance is sometimes the last thing we think of.
Voices of reason
The incident leader told us, “Fire is natural. We’re going to protect lives and property, but we manage fire in the wilderness.” The goal isn’t to put it out. “Come October, the weather will shift and put it out naturally.”
In my bones I knew, It’s going to be okay. It may not turn out the way I hoped, some precious things may be lost, but good people are working together to solve this. Together, they’ll do their best.
And looking at the assembled group of uniformed civil servants, engaged retreat center staff, and hippie-looking retreat guests, I realized, this is what democracy looks like.
The personal is political
Many people jokingly describe what’s happening in the White House as a dumpster fire. The imagery evokes flames and chaos, but we should have no illusions that it’s limited to a container.
Like the wildfire, a consuming blaze has caught in the wind, carried across treetops, and is scorching the values precious to our entire country. Rights frizzling away, programs gutted, and vast populations imperiled. We are a country ablaze.
Fire is natural. Can it possibly be that what is happening before our eyes, so dangerous, could actually bring renewal and life?
With a plan, it is so.
The fire response community showed me that with a clear and specific map, yes. With the collaboration of diverse agencies and groups, yes. With a commitment to service and common goals, yes. When our action is purposeful and resists freaking out, yes. And yes. And yes.
We can survive it—and this fire might even be life-giving in the long term.
The nation’s response to the spreading dumpster fire
If you’re isolated in your activism—working solo or in a small group—you might not see what is really happening in our country, the plan that is already saving what is precious.
Zoom out. You can begin to see the democracy fire response team at work, shirtsleeves rolled up and wearing big-D belt buckles. To start, our country’s Constitution represents the highest values of a people and informs everything we do. We have a badass judicial branch that upholds constitutional values time and again.
We have the wisdom of long-standing justice fighters like the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Organization for Women, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Companies from tech to agriculture are advocating for the rights of Americans and immigrants. We have a press that has endured drastic changes to produce reliable, well-reasoned material that keeps us informed and blasts out corruption.
My Americans of Conscience Action Checklist is part of this response. Your letters and phone calls are supporting the effort.
In other words, we have a plan. And the wildfire’s days are numbered.
What’s precious will endure
Together, we are first responders, the front line, and the wise veterans. We may not have the firefighters’ maps, but every group and person in this movement has a commitment to preserve the rights of our democracy. Together we will see this through until the healing rains come again.
Hope for the soul and a prayer for the spirit
In my bones, I know it’s going to be okay. It may not turn out the way I hope, some precious things may be lost, but good people are working together to solve this (us!). Together, we’ll do our best.
In the moments of doubt, when you see a scary, thick plume of smoke rising in the sky, the latest news of chaos or danger, take a breath. Trust. Send up a prayer for the defenders, those endangered, and for yourself too.
This is how I sleep at night. May it be the same for you.