New America Weekly

Embracing the “Good Fire” We Need for Change

Weekly Article
Photo_Time/Shutterstock.com
Sept. 17, 2020

I tuck my son against my side and hurry him from the house to the car. Small chunks of ash drift through the air as I buckle him into his carseat. We’re heading to our pandemic childcare co-op at a friend’s house—a seat-of-the-pants preschool replacement that helps the parents get a few hours of uninterrupted work time each day. For weeks, my son and his friend have played inside, sometimes parting living room curtains to peer at yellow-orange skies.

“It’s still very fokey outside,” my son says (he hasn’t yet mastered the “s” in “smoky”). “Because the fires are burning all the trees.” Toxic air is now a normal part of life for him—just as he adapted quickly to the idea that we couldn’t get close to most friends and family anymore, because of the germs. Just as, at the protest we marched in, he easily understood—though with sadness—that police officers don’t treat everyone the same, and often hurt people with black and brown skin.

Wildfire, virus, racism. We are trapped in a year where these spreaders have combined into a global crisis, and we are living in a world they control.

Spread requires fuel, and too often, humans are the ones providing it. Spread needs droughts and extremes. It needs underlying conditions. It needs ignorance, separation, and subjugation.

These things are fed by our refusal to change systems that have long been broken, from our acceptance of widespread poverty, to our reliance on fossil fuels, to an economy with its knee on the necks of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Like fire suppression, many of our policies are born of fear, driven by the desires of people with power to control the things that scare them. What would it look like to make decisions rooted, instead, in hope? What would it mean to embrace “good fire” in addressing other systemic crises?

In a world that sometimes feels like it’s ending, many of us are grasping for solutions. In California, one solution getting attention is the intentional, smaller-scale burning of forests—practiced for thousands of years by indigenous people—that some refer to as “good fire.”

Good fire, initiated by experts when the weather is right, clears out thick undergrowth, so that it never becomes the kindling that stokes catastrophic wildfires. It has benefits for the plants and animals that comprise our forest ecosystems. But for the last century, California policy has been to suppress fires of all kinds, out of fear that they will grow out of control. Now, with climate change drying more vegetation faster, decades of parched tinder is ready to ignite. In recent years the state has invested more in prescribed burns, but is still working its way through a backlog of choked forests. And meanwhile the weather grows hotter.

Like fire suppression, many of our policies are born of fear, driven by the desires of people with power to control the things that scare them. What would it look like to make decisions rooted, instead, in hope? What would it mean to embrace “good fire” in addressing other systemic crises?

Like prescribed burns, it might start with following examples set by BIPOC whose leadership and thinking has long been ignored. We know that the people who have been most harmed by problems are often those best situated to design sustainable solutions to them, and on issues from COVID-19 to police violence, BIPOC suffer most and most often.

“Good fire” might look like acknowledging and solving for the things that scare us, instead of pretending like they don't exist. It might mean white Americans looking plainly at and addressing how racism shows up in ourselves and the people around us. Internalizing what a future of unmitigated climate change really holds. Acknowledging the mortality which means all of us will one day need quality, affordable care.

“Good fire” might feel, initially, like sacrifice. It might mean choosing to tax ourselves enough to make radical investments in human well-being, supporting programs like guaranteed income and healthcare for all. A Green New Deal to help shift our economy away from the carbon that is killing us, and ways to respond to emergencies that do not rely on policing.

These ideas might sound scary, and it’s important to recognize that they are not without risk. In the past, prescribed burns were often called “controlled fire,” but practitioners are moving away from this language, in recognition that even this time-tested intervention carries dangers. But our current path is not without risk either: we have seen what these practices can do. The flames we fuel build to tornadoes of fire. We darken the sky in the middle of the day.

Yet we know that alongside profound harm, humans are capable of brilliance and compassion. If we want to preserve the world our children will inherit—one they still can marvel at—we must stop making decisions based in fear and control. Alternative paths exist—can we be brave enough to walk them? Our courage now will help our children grow up believing in their own strength, and each other’s, to keep choosing the healing fire, practices that will clear away the old and allow fresh possibilities to push through to the light.