Dispatches from the Frontlines of Fire Season

By Casey O’Neill

The unpredictability and threat of wildfires has increased dramatically in recent years, impacting families and communities all over the world. Wildfires disrupt communications, electricity, and water supply. They can lead to massive devastation of property, crops, animals, and people. Our Sun+Earth farmer communities in Northern California and Oregon have been battling these flames and defending their families and livelihoods. Sun+Earth Certified farmer and board member Casey O’Neill shares his report from the ground:

Fire! There are few things in life that spark the emotions and adrenaline for me like a fire in the neighborhood. It is the existential threat made real, always present as a specter in the summer but when it arrives it shakes me to the core. We dodged a bullet yesterday, thanks to unusually low afternoon winds and a massive response from Calfire and local first responders.

In this new world of superfires, fire becomes a “when” instead of an “if.” The trauma compounds each year, building a layer on top of the fragmented remains of past fire seasons. This shifting mental landscape is like quicksand, overwhelming and frightening. I bolster the pathway with little preparations, whistling past the graveyard and hoping against hope.

The fire yesterday was close enough to see from my house and in a place where the prevailing winds would send it my way. It was a scary feeling, taking me back to last year when we were close enough to the August Complex that we accepted the likelihood that we would be burnt over.

With the smoke growing thicker, we gathered valuables and important documents. In the calm now, I reflect on the strangeness of trying to gather up our lives, asking ourselves what things we care about and have time to grab and space to put them. Personal effects, business documents, farm equipment; I found myself using parameters like “if it’s easy to move and cost more than $500 let’s try and get it out.”

I found myself asking the question “should I focus on getting things out or on defensive preparations?” In a sense, focusing on getting equipment out feels like accepting defeat, but is also a way of hedging a bet on a homestead that holds my livelihood and identity.

The inevitable calculation comes down to “can I fight this with the resources I have?” What is the wind speed, how hot is it, what resources are available to combat the blaze? I fire up the pump and test it, confirming that the fire tank is topped up. I use the Mcleod to scrape wood chips, leaves, and other flammable debris back away from the house and deploy fire hoses.

There was a time when I rested secure in the hubris that I have it under control and will be successful in protecting my homestead. That simplicity was peaceful in its assurances, and also required less of me in terms of planning and evacuation. As time passes, I become less secure in that certainty, which makes the efforts more real and less clear.

Yesterday, I realized how vague my plans for animal evacuation are, in part because we have more livestock this year than we have in the past, and in part because I’m working through the realization that I really may have to evacuate them. Every other year at this time, all we had were poultry and rabbits, but now we also have pigs which are a whole different scale of size and logistics.

Chickens or rabbits can be caught and put into crates and loaded onto any vehicle; pigs are not so easy. The fat, docile Kunekunes are easy to encourage to move, but also stubborn when they dig their heels in. We made a hasty plan for a ramp to the multipurpose trailer that we use for everything on the farm, and it would have worked out of desperation but isn’t a good overall choice. Today I’m thinking about the need for a dedicated animal trailer with clear planning for how to get it off the mountain.

So many offers of assistance came in yesterday that it made my heart swell with connection and the realization of community. When times get tough, we show up for each other, and it feels good to know that we are all together in shared realization of the new fire reality. The silver lining of a fire close to us is the forced processing of preparations and plans, refining our practices through an active drill that ends well.

I’m finding that the more I walk myself through the steps of preparation for fire and evacuation, the more I can identify holes in the plans and refine the categories. Do we take the wedding photos or treasured art and gifts from friends? Definitely the laptop, but not the printer. Cordless tools if there is time, but not the hand tools. How much time is there to prepare, and how much should we spend on defense versus retreat? These and questions like them are important for all of us in rural areas, preparing with cool heads so that we are ready when the intensity arrives.

Much love and great success to you on your journey!