| Photo by Brenden Shave
By Robin Cohen
We all see the fires in California burning, mostly at the interface between open and semi-urban or gentrified rural land. I live in such a place, and two weeks ago the reality I most dreaded revealed itself out my windows in billowing smoke that mimicked an active volcano, blazes that made the night sky glow, ashes that powdered all of Salinas, and eventually vivid flames burning through canyons as they made steady progress toward my neighborhood.
We had plenty of time to make arrangements, secure the irreplaceable and find accommodations from dear friends. Nonetheless, it was all terrifying and sobering to have to seriously consider that I might not have a home or a neighborhood at the end of it.
Cal Fire firefighters blanketed the River Road corridor, always visible in dozers cutting firebreaks, planes dropping fire retardant and helicopters ferrying endless buckets of water from the neighborhood pond to the burning ridge. There was even a fire engine parked right in front of my house.
The fire was contained and I’m home again now, along with nearly the whole neighborhood. We are all immensely grateful to the firefighters for their incredible tenacity, grit and skill at managing the fire.
And amid all of this I’m also overcome by a sense of shame and embarrassment: How much did it cost, all of this intense human effort and firefighting machinery? How can the general public, the taxpayers of California, be made to pick up the tab for fighting fires like this? Who is shouldering the cost of our luxurious lifestyle surrounded by open space, grand vistas and dark star-studded skies? Most poignantly, where and how do they live?
Many of them, surely tens of thousands of these folks who’ve contributed to the survival of my paradise, live in their own fire zones, not of smoke and flames but the persistent smoldering of inaccessible housing, a threat that has them always on the brink of homelessness. A great many others are already over the edge living doubled and tripled up. That spreading threat of housing insecurity stretches across job categories and wage ranges. I got an email today from a co-worker, a Ph.D candidate whose tagline at the bottom of her message included the following phrase: “Rent Burden: 80%.” That’s the percentage of her income consumed by rent.
Other fierce fires are burning every day here in the Salinas Valley for farmworkers and service workers who don’t have the luxury of adequate measures to protect themselves from COVID-19 or toxic pesticides or violence, and whose children suffer the glaring disparities in educational opportunities.
Where are the firefighters for these fires? Why can’t we put out those flames and worry about the tab later? Why, when someone tries to mobilize resources for these genuine threats, do critics, many who live in the zones vulnerable to the more dramatic smoky fires, always have at the ready their calculators and righteous arguments against such help?
Where is our tenacity, grit and skill to ensure that no one in this rich society is forced to live on the brink of losing everything?
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