Thursday, October 22, 2015

Burning It Up

The earth is on fire this year. During a short trip to Penang island in Malaysia, the epic and horrific conflagration of the Indonesian peat bogs touched my lungs. Our trip was characterized with occasional bouts of blue sky, but largely a dormant, brown-grey haze stretched over the horizon for most of the days. While hiking in the rainforests of the smallest National Park in the world, I reflected a little on the notable fires of my past.    Not the fond memories of Alaskan campfires snapping and cracking in the fire ring, but of the fires that were accidental and out of control, powerful and angry. 
On the return approach to Kuala Lumpur,
the sun sets in haze. 

While co-leading a group of teenagers on a 6-week camping adventure through British Columbia and Alaska, I made a simple mistake with a backpacking stove led to one of the most embarrassing and dangerous moments in my life.  We'd just picked up the kids from the airport that day.  There were lessons in how to set up the tents, orientations and questions, and then the stove safety demonstration before we prepared dinner. 

My co-leader was a mensch and I was worried.  He’d disclosed to me (but not our employer before he was hired) that he took psychotropic medications for both anxiety and depression.  He was a little more into his own head than to what was needed at the time, a bit bumbling and uncertain. He had no experience; perhaps they thought I could take most of the load.  Communication seemed awkward, the pseudo-cordial clarification of every small detail was time-consuming and painstaking.  Perhaps I was a bit inpatient, a little stressed, pre-occupied myself.   The cooking stove was an ultra-light backpacking stove, primped with hand pumps and then, even in calm moments of serene backcountry dinners, required a tricky wisp of fuel set alight to set the liquid fuel to gas.  I gave it a few extra pumps to be sure. 
An oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan is shrouded in 
haze from agriculture fires raging across the country. 

Photo by Jenito.
 I set it alight to start the process of priming- converting liquid fuel to gas. Twelve impressionable adolescents and 2 new leaders watched. In seconds, all hell broke loose.  Fuel spurted, the intensity of the flame melted the plastic housing cap.  Clumps of flames landed on the enormous leaves of skunk cabbage that surrounded on the gravel. The fuel bottle was alive, seemingly spinning and engulfed in 1 liter of pure jet-fueled flames.  Time was the only fire extinguisher.

It was dangerous and fascinating, horrifying and demoralizing. My heart and spirit both infused with fear and shame, a loss of honor and dignity, a really rough start to the trip.  The co-leader brightly suggested we pack it up and go out for pizza and then onward we went.  It wasn't the only incident on that trip.    

The wildfire that raged for 30th birthday a number of years earlier, on a trip where I joined my fellow guide/boyfriend and his clients in a remote canyon on the Rio Grande river in West Texas, also started with a single flick of a lighter.  We were packing up the boat after a lovely birthday cake and dinner the night before in one of Mariscal Canyon's only campsites. The client-husband needed to poop after the “groover”, a leak-proof metal box that was the field toilet, was firmly tucked in the bottom of the raft, Bob sent the guy off into the farthest reach away from the river to bury his business in the dry grasslands near the cliffs that surrounded our small campsite.  Moments later, we saw the wafts of smoke as the insurance salesman started running to the boat shouting,"I tried to put it out. It went too fast."

Bob, launching into the Eagle Scout mode I loved, grabbed his cotton serape and ripped it in half, taking both pieces to the river before running to the blaze.  I filled up all the metal dish washing pails Keep packing the boat." He yelled, "We're going to need to get out of here soon."  
An image taken from Nasa's Terra satellite on 
Sept 24, 2015,shows smoke from 
fires in Indonesia over the coasts
 of Borneo and Sumatra. PHOTO: REUTERS

He was as strong as I've ever seen him, running back and forth for as long as he could, but in moments the flames came toward us.  We loaded up fast, jumped on the raft and retreated to the safety of the river.  Silently, we drifted backwards as we watched the smoke curling up around the blackened beach, harsh against the burnt umber canyon walls and the languid brown of the Rio Grande river.  

On return to civilization, we were the talk of many a bar stool, rambling criticism of what we'd let be created, let happened, done. The next year, when I returned for my last spring season on the river, one of the old-timers from the competition sidled up to me while I was writing and enjoying an ice cold sun tea at Pam's Diner.  "You know," He drawled, "I gotta tell you that the campsite you guys burned up last year bloomed into a field of flowers. It's really beautiful now."

The smoke from Indonesia has now drifted to Thailand, diverting flights and causing millions in tourism revenue.   Unexpected and our of control fires always have some impact. The financial costs,health risks and sometimes loss of life, emotional impacts of the helpless witness on sometimefar greater than ourselves.  The vast power of a force unleashed and uncontrollable is mesmerizing and horrifying.

Now, as the climate changes and the intensity of natural forces increases, we are poised at a brink.  Do we stand, simply dumbfounded at the power we are witnessing, remaining hopeless?   Or do we furiously try to stem the tide for as long as we can?    Perhaps we can only hope that, like Phoenix, we can be transformed as a result of witnessing its power.

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