Fifteen years ago, my friend Matthew and I stood on a recently burned hillside in California's Mojave National Preserve inspecting the aftermath of the catastrophic Hackberry Fire. Sparked by dry lightning a month before, the fire had burned 70,000 acres and change.
I took photos. I would eventually use them for an article in Earth Island Journal recapping an exceptionally bad year for fires in the desert southwest. 2005 was bad.
One of the photos doesn’t quite convey the horror I felt looking at the landscape in it. It was a slow-growing horror, one that took out the bottom of me and let all my hope drain out, and I raised my camera to my eye knowing the photo would never capture the full meaning.
That dim far rounded horizon in the background upper right is Cima Dome. Cima Dome is my favorite place in the Mojave Desert. I have explored it since 1997. It is where I fell unalterably in love with the Mojave.
Here’s the caption I wrote for the photo when I posted it on Flickr 15 years ago:
At left, a live Joshua tree. At right, devastation. That long slope in the far distance is Cima Dome, and nothing stood between the fire and the Joshua tree forests of the Dome but the hard work of the fire crews. But the Dome will burn, eventually. I only hope I'm not around to see it.
Since yesterday afternoon when the Dome Fire started, 25,000 acres of Cima Dome has burned. No one is reporting a cause, but dry lightning is as likely as anything else. There were thunderheads all across the desert yesterday.
The center of my heart is on fire.
Sometimes I feel like I have lived far too long.
But my work is not over, and neither is yours. The Joshua Tree in the top photograph is an eastern Joshua trees, Yucca jaegeriana. These are not the same species as the western trees, or so an increasing number of people think these days, and because of that, they would not be covered by the current effort to list the western Joshua tree as Threatened under the California Endangered Species Act.
Extinction is the fate that faces both. They are identical in that respect.
The fires right now cutting the heart out of the center of the eastern Joshua tree’s habitat — and cutting the heart out of me, and the Mojave National Preserve, and all those who love the place — are already devastating the western trees as well, more and more each year.
We increasingly have nothing left to lose. Join us.
Video by Joel Billheimer @joel_bilheimer
Chris Clarke has been a columnist for KCET in Los Angeles and editor of Earth Island Journal. He works as a conservationist in California's Mojave desert. Follow his writing here.
Apocalypse? Sorry to Disappoint You.
In 1999's stirring book Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis cast California as Nature's drama queen: fires, floods, droughts, and, of course, earthquakes. (Remember those?)
But it's fire that's on our minds now, and if we live in California, the smoke is making us cough and worry, or we may have already packed up our cars. It is the history of this place, after all, to head out...somewhere. But there's climate change, and sometimes it feels as though there's nowhere left to run, especially in the Time of Covid.
Apocalypse feels closer than ever. As it turns out, apocalypse isn't that simple. California's forests used to burn all the time. The fires happened naturally, and the First People burned the lion-colored hills to plant crops.
In a flash of lyricism now rife with echoes, the 16th-century Spanish explorer Cabrillo called the Santa Monica Bay “Bahia de los Fumos,” or “Bay of Smokes.”
What's new is that state and federal officials may finally be marshaling the resources to solve the problem.
If there's enough political will, the apocalypse may just have to wait.
A writer riffs on Mike Davis and The Constantly Looming Apocalypse in the LA Weekly: Ecology of Fire.
If you'd like to help firefighters and people affected by the wildfires, click here for a list of organizations.
Baby’s On Fire ::: Brian Eno
Chariots of Fire ::: Al Green
Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield ::: Randy Newman
Fire ::: Jimi Hendrix
Fire of Love ::: The Gun Club
Fire On The Bayou ::: The Meters
Fire Fire ::: S.E. Rogie
Fire In The Jungle ::: Omar & The Howlers
Fire ::: Tackhead
Love Goes To Buildings On Fire ::: Talking Heads
Burning Hell ::: John Lee Hooker
Burn It Down ::: Los Lobos
Ring of Fire ::: Ry Cooder, Roseann Cash
Jump Into The Fire ::: Harry Nilsson