Blackout Thoughts

Powerless in the new normal

As bushfires continue to rage in Australia, onetime firefighter, Tom Walsh reports on life in a blackout in the wake of this year's fire season in California.
has fought wildfires, built hiking trails, and been a newspaper reporter and corporate editor. He has lived throughout the US, in England, and once again calls northern California home.

Lights On

From the apartment’s small deck, I look south toward Corte Madera Ridge, a few miles away. It rises some 900 feet above sea level as it winds toward Mt. Tamalpais, which tops out over 2500 feet and is the highest peak in the Marin Hills in the California Coast Range. The hillsides are deep green with redwoods, Douglas fir, California bay laurel, tanoak and more. The cloudless afternoon sky is a deep October indigo. A gentle breeze blows. There’s no smoke. Yet.

Some 45 miles north the Kincade fire rips through the hills and canyons of Sonoma County, uprooting families, destroying buildings, changing habitat, and serving up the latest reminder of the new climate regime. Tens of thousands of people have been told to leave their homes to avoid a repeat of the 2017 Camp fire that killed dozens in Paradise, a three-hour drive to the northeast.

The wind here in Larkspur picks up during the day and will soon blow a steady 25 mph and gust into the mid-40s, higher along the ridges and down into the valleys and canyons and topping 100 not far away. We are on notice that PG&E will cut our power today, a desperate stopgap measure to prevent additional fires from starting should the winds cause power lines to drop into the tinder dry countryside.

We’ve known for days the blackout is coming. I’ve lived back in California only a short while after decades away and haven’t yet built a proper emergency stash, something I’ve been planning, though more with earthquakes in mind. I fought wildfires in my younger days with the California Conservation Corps and US Forest Service, but I’ve never had to plan how to live through one as a civilian with a family. 

In the past 24 hours I’ve gassed up filled up the car, checked out a few books from the library, and picked up an emergency radio, a first aid kit, and additional backup power for our phones. Today I went to a grocery store with my son, the only family member home with me this week. Inside, the store reminded me of the Northeast before a snow storm, only California style, a tad more mellow. 

People look slightly confused and I realise I’m not the only one new to this. It’s PG&E’s first year of preemptive power shut offs, and everyone is learning on the fly. For instance, it turns out that D batteries are impossible to find mid-emergency, which spurs a brief conversation among strangers at a store display. Someone gives tips on the best flashlights, another shares his bug-out plan. No one talks about why this is happening.  

School is cancelled for the next two days, and we pick up some non-perishables, looking more like supplies for a teenager’s sleepover than a serious emergency cache – chips, pretzels, salsa, crackers, peanut butter, cookies, a big jug of iced tea. The only nod to doomsday prepping are beef jerky and some canned fruit.  

Lights Off

After sundown we watch a documentary about the hunting styles of various predators. It’s nearly  eight o’clock and we’re not sure how much longer we’ll have power, or when we’ll get it back after it’s gone. David Attenborough’s perfectly cadenced British measures out the lethal teamwork of an Arctic wolf pack pursuing its prey. His voice shifts to a humorous rhythm as the cameras track a polar bear’s vaudevillian effort to sneak up on a seal through holes in the ice. Nature TV as narcotic, though I can’t escape thinking that someday these videos may be the only memories my son has left of many species. Just as the polar bear appears ready to score, the television, lights, chargers, clocks and dials turn off with an audible snap and it’s dark. ‘Here we go,’ I say.

‘I didn’t know it would happen so suddenly,’ my son says. ‘I thought the lights would slowly dim.’  I wonder if people will think just that when the Anthropocene ends.

With the lights out we talk a little, but soon retire, each to our own room. Looking out the window I see a steady stream of headlights moving in both directions on Highway 101, a half mile away. There are a few emergency lights on in the complex, and a generator starts up nearby, lighting up the Marriott down the hill. I’d hoped for a more complete blackout, a quieter one. 

Sleep comes quickly, but I wake up soon and often. I tune in to the emergency channel. Winds are picking up, the red flag warning in effect. 

Morning comes and I’m glad I have propane for the grill to boil water for coffee. I watch the sun rise on another stunning cloudless day, enjoying the familiar bitter taste from the dark roasted beans. I shudder to think they may soon be gone, and what else we will have lost with them. I watch the hummingbirds make their rounds on neighbours’ feeders. A few vultures soar overhead.

I don’t recall ever talking about nuclear war with my father. It’s hard to talk in terms of end times to someone who isn’t even old enough to drive.

My anxiety is higher than I want to admit, and I shield my son from it. He’s 15 and of course knows what climate change is, the same as I knew what mutually assured destruction meant when I was his age. But I struggle to get into a serious discussion about it with him. I don’t recall ever talking about nuclear war with my father. It’s hard to talk in terms of end times to someone who isn’t even old enough to drive. 

Earlier, when I asked him to pack a go-bag, I told him to think of it like packing for a three or four night stay at a friend’s. Given our apartment’s location, I don’t expect a sheriff to wake us up and give a minute’s notice to leave, which has been a reality for many people this week. But it could happen. I’ve set aside a box with items from the safe – passports and health records and other papers. I packed a small duffel with CDs and dozens of Hi-8 tapes of the kids when they were infants and toddlers (I make a note to digitise and upload). I have my own go-bag. The cat carrier is nearby with some food in it, and we wonder how deeply she’ll hide if the leave order comes.

Emergency services have asked that people stay at home today so as not to clog the roads. With no desire to be in town without traffic lights, it’s an easy directive to follow. I read T. C. Boyles A Friend of the Earth, a somewhat early (2000) contribution to climate literature whose most memorable line is: ‘To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people’. The end of civilisation is a given in this novel, which both clouds and humours my day.

Local cellular towers keep working on their backup power and I refresh the San Francisco Chronicle website often on my phone, and listen to the emergency channel on the radio. Red flag warnings will stay up for another day. The Kincade fire continues unabated. Smaller fires break out around the Bay area and the rest of the state, some of them quickly consuming acres and forcing more evacuations. Occasionally I look up into the hills for smoke, but don’t see any.

The day passes fitfully and soon it is dark.  

 

Back to Normal?

Just shy of 48 hours after they went out, the lights come on. Out on the deck I add a cheer to the victory shouts from a few neighbours across the complex. But it’s a hollow win. The Kincade fire will blaze for days, and fires still burn in Southern California. In the coming weeks we’ll get a couple of more outage alerts, though none are put into effect. 

The West has always burned, though these past few years are different. In the early 80s I was a seasonal firefighter. In the fearless lingo of college students looking to make a year’s worth of wages in a few months, a whiff of smoke made us proclaim: ‘Smells like overtime’. When the Kincade fire’s smoke arrives, it smells like the end of time.

I’m told the smoke this year is nothing compared to last year when breathing in the Bay area was bad for your health. A neurologist at UCSF tells me how even inside the hospital the air quality was dangerously bad. 

It’s convenient to fault the power companies for California’s fires, and they certainly share blame for lack of maintenance, but so do all of us who demand electricity. We all consume indiscriminately and have yet to put enough pressure on governments to take meaningful action on the climate crisis.

I’ve attempted to change my own behaviour, but two days without power gave time to reflect and made it clear that I’ve not done nearly enough. Enlightened by my daughter to the climatological impact of livestock farming, I haven’t eaten meat for several months, and have limited dairy. I’ve written to a few representatives in Congress. I’ve raised the climate issue, if subtly, at work. I’m trying to reach out to others through writing about it.

As I said, not enough. The biggest step I’ve taken is internal, trying to be more aware, to start conversations. I find myself thinking about warming almost constantly. My reading is now directed toward those addressing climate and extinction, from fiction such as Richard Powers’ Overstory, nonfiction like The Uninhabitable Earth, and websites like Dark Mountain.

I try not to be gloomy, and have not fallen into the mindset of ‘We are now the Earth’s hospice workers in the age of extinction’, though I don’t criticise those who have adopted such thinking. At the same time, it’s difficult to believe that a great awakening is about to happen, so I tread water in the liminal zone between pessimism and optimism. 

This week brings more warnings from the scientific community about tipping points and cascades and missed GHG emissions goals. The news has no more impact than dispatches from a space explorer at the galaxy’s edge. 

 The Kincade fire stopped after burning nearly 78,000 acres and displacing 180,000 people. The immediate cause appears to have been a high voltage power line that PG&E had not switched off and that snapped when the winds blew strong. Yes, it’s ironic.  

In the first year of pre-emptive power cuts, well over two  million Californians were affected. Most, like me, felt only minor inconvenience. Some who depend on the power for their businesses took economic losses, though others surely profited. Medical patients faced some of the most serious consequences. 

 

For many, power cuts will simply become part of ‘the new normal’, as so many consequences of climate change are labelled

For many, power cuts will simply become part of ‘the new normal’, as so many consequences of climate change are labelled. Extreme temperatures. Increased rainfall. Intense drought. City-inundating hurricanes. Rising sea levels. More destructive wildfires. Environmentalists, politicians, and the media have called all of these ‘the new normal’. The term sparks some debate regarding its veracity and utility. 

In fact, although the 2019 fire season ran later than usual, into late November, in many ways it was normal. The four-year drought was officially over, the woodland fuel dried out at a typical rate following a wet spring, and there wasn’t as much lightning as usual.   

During the blackout, my family called from the East Coast to ask how close we were to the fires. Truth is, we’re all close. Throughout the summer wildfires raged in the Amazon as farmers cleared land for meat production as governments turned a blind eye. Fires rooted in the same cause burned across Indonesia, emitting even more CO2 than the Amazonian fires. Australian brush fires raged for weeks before summer even began. The boreal forest in the Arctic burned.

Here in the Golden State, the late November Cave fire forced thousands of people out of their homes near Santa Barbara. Finally, two days before Thanksgiving, the rain arrived, a wind-driven deluge that knocked the chairs around on the deck. With more rain in the forecast, this should be the end of the 2019 California fire season. Some will debate whether this year’s fires were climate change related, but nowadays that is a false argument to engage. 

When the next blackout comes, I’ll be better prepared. Permanent go-bags. More canned food. But what else will I have done? Will wildfires and pre-emptive blackouts simply become part of my seasonal routine? With my bags packed and my kids’ videos uploaded and my D batteries stocked will I feel that I have done all that I can?  Will I be surprised when the new normal is simply to watch the end come? 

 

IMAGE: Palaces of the Moon by Amory Abbott

Charcoal on Stonehenge paper

Groves and stands of burnt snags revealed whole in the pale light of the moon. Sometimes only the pale light of the moon can reveal the wholeness of what has been lost. My work explores themes of darkness, grief, emptiness, and loss in the landscape, using wonder and mystery to spark a deeper connection to the living world. An honest relationship with the land around us is not satisfied by only what is seen clearly in the brightness of day.

Amory Abbott is a visual artist living in Vancouver, British Columbia where he teaches illustration at Emily Carr University of Art. His art practice addresses issues of climate change and human existence, and he is represented by Russo Lee Gallery in Portland,  Oregon, and featured in 3×3 Magazine.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 15 (PDF)

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

Read more
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