Firestorm, 1991

When I was sixteen my father and I nearly died in a wildfire.

When I was four, he bought twenty-seven acres outside of town. At night, in a field among the forests, it felt like space could devour you. Very few lights dotted the landscape back then. Now when I go back there are so many lights I can hardly see the stars.

We started in a used single wide trailer. Two years later the concrete was poured and the first timbers went up. My dad worked long hours at a meat packing plant with a 45-mintue commute. I lived in the city with my mom during the week. On the weekends, I was a wild child out at my dad’s house. He bartered and traded for goods and services to get the house built. Family and friends came out to help with whatever skills they could bring to the effort. It created a festive atmosphere having so many people around. My grandpa, my great grandpa, my grandmother, my great aunt and uncle, some family friends and occasionally my childhood friend and her parents too. I loved growing up “under construction.” When the scaffolding went up three stories high, I turned into a monkey. When my grandma would give me food I would stuff it in my pockets or have a sandwich hanging out of my mouth as I scurried up to the highest scaffolding board to eat. I also liked throwing carrot chunks at my older brother, because he was too afraid to climb so high.

One of my favorite family friends was a survivor of Auschwitz. He lost his whole family including a wife. He remarried a fellow survivor after they were freed. That’s all I know of his story. He was a kind, soft-spoken man, and an excellent master bricklayer, just like my great grandfather. Every time I see the bricks in “soldier pattern” (standing vertical) over the main doorway, I think of him. The rest of the house was built of wood.

The house grew and now it’s very large. You might consider it a mansion, one that took nearly forty years to build. Wildfires have come and gone over the years, but they never come close enough for us to really worry, until 1991. What would become locally known as, “Firestorm 1991.” It’s a lot like what the Bootleg fire in Oregon appears to be becoming now, multiple fires driven by high winds.

We got blocked on three sides, one of them curving like a half moon that eventually cutoff our escape route. My Stepmom, Stepsister, and Stepbrother got out in time. My stepsiblings were just little kids at the time. My stepsister cried, begging us to come too. I wanted to go, but I wouldn’t without my dad. I thought if I stayed with him, he would see reason. I thought I could get him to go, for me. By the time I felt I had convinced him it; it was too late to leave. The firefighters had come. They told us to evacuate. They themselves were pulling out and right after they left trees fell as if closing a door behind them.

I filled the bathtub with water, so I felt like I had a choice between burning or drowning. I was angry and sad that we hadn’t left with the rest of the family, but I understood too. I knew how much the house means to my dad. How much it means to me. Many beloved hands shaped the walls, drove the nails, and mudded the cracks in the sheetrock. When I visit, I run my hands along the walls. Hierth, you can never go home.

The night was long. The glow of the fire was so bright when you closed your eyes, you still saw the fire through your eyelids. There was nowhere to hide. We paced around like angry cats. We patrolled the windows as they started turning black with soot. The hose and buckets positioned by the doors. Our water was drawn by a well and the closest fire was nearly upon the pump house. Then the fire turned and battled the other for fuel. They consumed each other before us. There was not enough tinder between the both of them and they burned each other out. I would have cried if I’d had enough moisture left for tears. I thought I might cry table salt instead; my eyes were so crusty.

We survived. The house still stands today. The wood exterior has been covered with stone. The roof has been replaced with tiles. I still can’t help but think of it as a giant brick oven though. I can’t live out there no more. Every year I worry about my dad. Every year I track the fires. I live roughly five hours away, but if I move like a low flying aircraft and I don’t stop to pee, I can make it in three.

I don’t just follow “our fires,” I track everyone’s fires. My own version of Nihilism perhaps, but I also think Fire Science is interesting. Sometimes, I cry tears for others I couldn’t cry for myself. I know their pain. Most recently it was for the people of Lytton, BC.

The problem isn’t just one thing, it’s a multitude of things. Yes, it’s more people moving out to rural areas. Yes, it’s years of suppressing natural fires. It’s over regulated in some ways and under regulated in other ways. It’s bad planning. It’s greed. It’s global warming.

We could be more strategic in how we manage fires and how we plan our communities. The Camp Fire in California in 2018 showed just how dangerous one of our most popular housing development layouts can be. It’s typically a selling feature to live on a dead end street, until you can’t escape in an emergency due to you and your neighbors trying to flee at once creating a chokehold. We have to rebalance and recalibrate, the natural environment with the built environment. We can save ourselves, save the trees, and animal lives with lower intensity fires. Fire isn’t always bad. Regenerative fires help create lower intensity fires and healthier forests and fields for future generations.

Additional Links:

Firestorm 1991 – Aug. 21, 2015 | The Spokesman-Review

‘Most homes’ in Lytton, B.C., destroyed by catastrophic fire, minister says | CBC News (This link includes a video of a guy who describes just how hard it is to make the decision whether to leave or stay during a wildfire. This fire occurred earlier this month at the beginning of July 2021.)

Have you ever been affected by wildfire?

Tiny Forests: Small forests for big impact

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

Every week I read a lot of news stories, predominately on the topics of the Environment, Science and Technology. All this reading interweaves into a tapestry of ideas and inspirations. Last week, I read about how Reddit’s former CEO, Yishan Wong, uprooted his family to follow a dream of environmental restoration in Hawaii, which sparked the research for this week’s focus. I feel like there was another story I read that first mentioned “The Miyawaki Method”, but I’m not sure which one it was now.

The Miyawaki Method creates a dense bio-diverse forest in 20-30 years instead of waiting for the natural cycle to take around 200 years. (It depends on the forest type. This estimation is based off the temperate forests of Japan.)

The first and most important step is the site assessment. Before you send your trees off to college or tell them to reach for the stars, you have to give them a good foundation of the basics, air flow, food and water. Miyawaki’s Method is dependent on the belief of creating “an authentic forest.” The trees, shrubs and other plants should be native to region and native to the microclimate of that region. This requires carefully harvesting seedlings from native flora that may be rare and hard to find.

The seedlings are often grown in various levels of shade to help them establish deep root systems. Once they are ready for planting all the kids are shoved into a small plot, typically no smaller that 30sq meters (about 322.92 sq feet) with one tree per square meter, but at least 60-90 plants in total for the whole space. These plant kids are growing up in a natural world version of an apartment complex.

In the conventional method of planting your trees would all be suburban kids, neatly spaced out with cute little name tags and yet they’d all have a handful of the most common surnames in the country, the Smiths, Johnsons, and Williams of the US. The Rodriguez, Martinez, and Garcías of Colombia. The Sato, Suzuki, and Takahashi of Japan or the Devi, Singh, and Kumar of India. (Search “Most common surname in [Country]” to see what the most common last name is in your country.)

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

The actual planting of all this flora requires randomly distributing it and not doing it in rows or staggered. Have you ever tried to do something randomly? If at this point in your life you have not discovered that humans are naturally inclined to certain patterns, you will suddenly make this realization when you are told to “randomize” something. I find it an interesting side effect of human adaptation. We’ve worked so hard to organize the world in order to make sense of it that when we are asked to randomize we struggle not to make patterns. In the past I’ve made necklaces and done beadwork. I’ll try to make it random only to discover that the longer I work at it, the more likely a pattern will emerge if I am not paying attention.

Akira Miyawaki came up with his method after studying a concept in Germany called “potential natural vegetation” (or Kuchler Potential vegetation) in the 1960s. The idea is to study what the forest would look like without human interference and try to replicate it. The seeds that are harvested from native plants need to have the qualities of being pioneers and secondary indigenous species with mycorrhization. These are the pathfinders of the indigenous forests trying to regrow in areas that might have once been damaged by fire, flood, or disease.

If you’ve read The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (goodreads.com)or watched the episode of “The Magic School Bus Rides Again Season 2 Episode 10 (Tim and the Talking Trees | The Magic School Bus Wiki | Fandom)  then you’ve come to understand the importance of the mycorrhizal (fungus) and soil bacterium.

Did you know that the microbiome of the human gut has it’s own nervous system? It’s called the enteric system. As we learn the importance of what a healthy gut biome means to human health, one could argue that the trees gut biome is found through the soil. Alternately, You’re feeding a forest in your stomach! A micro biome unique to you. You’re a walking terrarium. When we humble ourselves to the possibilities within the natural world and truly set our egos aside, then we can truly learn new things instead of re-creating the same old premises that hold us back. This is how you learn to think in radically different ways.

Mr. Miyawaki has traveled all over the world to create his process in several countries. As the method become more well-known it inspires others to also work towards this goal of restoring the land one tiny forest at a time. One of these people is Subhendu Sharma of India, who created a company called “Afforestt” and speaks on the subject as a TedTalk Fellow. You can find his videos on YouTube. Some are in English and some are in Hindi. I hope that I too can be a part of the Tiny Forest movement in my own region. I would like to see economically depressed neighborhoods in Seattle, Everett and Tacoma be helped and healed instead of continually ignored.

Right now, I live in a very hot housing market as people in the cities try to outrun urban decay, California and whatever else, small living spaces I suspect, noisy neighbors, etc. I live at edge in what is called the “urban-wildlife interface”, it’s the point at which humans and wildlife collide into side by side living. When the new people move in the freak out after the first windstorm and decide that all the trees need to be cut down, because they’re tall and they *might* fall, even though its already been standing there for 80 years. Then they see their wild neighbors and think they should be the ones to move. Just because a black bear walks across your lawn doesn’t make it a “problem” bear. It’s just existing and each new 5-acre, 9-acre, or 60-acre lot of land that gets developed into matchstick houses pushed the animals further into sight and conflict with humans.

This is a battle I’m willing to fight. I think to save my wild neighbors, we need to revitalize the urban cores once again. We must change our urban planning methods built on old premises and build upon new ones inspired by nature. No more redlining. We need to re-create cities where people can thrive and to do that, we need to bring back some of the forest back into the cities with us.

Don’t we all want to live in beautiful and interesting places? Part of what makes a place interesting to me, is the cultural and indigenous heritage of that place, through its land and its people. An authentic forest. An authentic city. An authentic forest city.

Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

What do you think?

Links:

Former Reddit CEO’s New Startup Terraformation Raises $30 Million To Restore Forests And Tackle Climate Change (forbes.com)

Akira Miyawaki Official site: Akira Miyawaki | Inventor of Manmade Forest

Shubhendu Sharma, Afforestt Founder and TED Fellow: How to grow your own tiny forest | (ted.com) (video)

UK: Tiny Forest projects launching in Wales: Tiny Forest | Keep Wales Tidy

Potential natural vegetation (PNV) (aka Kuchler potential vegetation): Page translated in English: Potential natural vegetation – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (original page in German: Potenzielle natürliche Vegetation – Wikipedia)

A good step-by step outline: How to Build a Forest in your Backyard – The Miyawaki Method – CUTTING EDGE VISIONARIES (cevgroup.org)