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Baby's on Fire

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Chris Clarke

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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.

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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.

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Cima Dome, today. Photo courtesy San Bernardino County 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.

More on the effort to save Joshua Trees here.

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.

Read about the cure for California wildfire here.

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