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Where there's smoke

My World's on Fire
Where there's smoke
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #18 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
It’s been a month of historic fire in California. The New York Times reflected on this in today’s California newsletter, featuring an interview with reporter Jack Healy, who has been covering the fires across the state:
“‘The whole state is on fire’ is a refrain you hear a lot. Especially this year. What feels different is how pervasive these fires are, how their calling cards of smoke and ash and haze have just become inescapable across spans of hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s different this year, and what isn’t.
When the West woke up to thick, orange skies last week, it was undeniably shocking. But, as fire historian Steve Pyne wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, so was the 2017 fire season. And the one in 2018. “Unprecedented” years of wildfires that shocked the public but didn’t lead to deeper conversations about the “systemic nature of the crisis.” Instead, Pyne said, “each season seemed to wipe away the memory of the past one.”
Except, of course, for those impacted.
“We’ve done this before,” Butte County resident Frank Martinez told the Los Angeles Times last week after evacuating.It’s coming up on two years since the county Martinez calls home was the site of the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in modern California history. But it’s still recent enough that, when smoke fills the sky, it’s like touching a raw nerve for many residents.
As I watched fires grow and spread and combine across Butte County, I started reaching out to some of the people I’ve met reporting on the Camp Fire recovery. They expressed frustration. Concern. They were all, thankfully, safe.
According to Doreen Fogle, a volunteer at Magalia Community Church, there was a “mass exodus” from Paradise as fires and smoke spread, despite the fact that the area was not in any immediate danger.
“The people that went through the Camp Fire weren’t taking chances,” she told me by phone Tuesday night.
This small church along Skyway Road has been one of the only constant sources of aid for Camp Fire survivors, continuing to provide food and essential items throughout the pandemic for those still in need.
The church’s power got shutoff – Fogle’s, too – so they had been operating at a limited capacity for a few days. When they officially reopened Tuesday, she says there was a constant line of cars.
“We actually made the decision over the weekend to open up to any fire survivors, no matter where they’re from,” she explained. “It’s kind of haunting seeing them with that whole ‘fire fog,’ shocked state of mind. It just takes me back to those early days of the Camp Fire and just remembering how lost people were. They didn’t know what to do.”
The Church has been relying on grants to fund its aid offerings which, Fogle says, are currently set to run out at the end of the year. Considering the circumstances, she’s hopeful that will change. Along with helping this new influx of wildfire survivors, Fogle says they’re trying to provide guidance to other support groups popping up in affected areas.
“We can help them get started, and we can help them avoid problems we ran into and learn lessons from us, so that we can actually give them a jumpstart,” she said. “It’s just really back to those basics of how can you get these people the help they need, and how do you get it to them wherever they are when they’re all scattered.”
She knows – she’s done this before.
Doreen Fogle volunteering at Magalia Community Church in January
This is technically supposed to be a links edition, so I want to end with one last read. Written by Kailyn McCord for LitHub, it’s about the fires, but also about how we manage to normalize what we once found shocking:
“We adapt so quickly. By fractional adjustments we arrive at a completely new understanding of ourselves, and by the stepwise process manage to do so without ever having realized any departure in the first place. Like the frog in water, temperature rising all the time, we repeat this phrase (of a pandemic, of climate events) new normal, as by its repetition we can will it into being, as if, by insisting we are already adjusted, we will be able to forget whatever normal once was, ignore whatever long distance we’ve come from that place.”
September is National Preparedness Month
In case you didn’t have it marked on your calendar, this happens to be National Preparedness Month, something you’ll hear more about in later newsletters. To celebrate, I’ll be including an emergency preparedness tip in each edition this month, courtesy of my “Doomsday Pupper” Instagram account. I’d love to hear if you find this feature helpful, and if it’s something you’d like to see continued!
And, as always…
thank you for being a part of this community. If you found today’s dispatch interesting, please consider sharing it and spreading the word on social media.
Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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Colleen Hagerty

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