Home Breaking News A Soundtrack for an Unfolding Climate Disaster

A Soundtrack for an Unfolding Climate Disaster

13
0
A Soundtrack for an Unfolding Climate Disaster

One late morning in June, my partner and I met friends at an outdoor café near our home, in the sylvan hills of western Sonoma County, an hour and a half’s drive north of the Bay Area. Our friends were en route back to Oakland, after a getaway on the Mendocino coast. It was hot out, and we chose a table shaded by a large tree. Above and around us, redwoods and other conifers draped an expansive horizon of ridges. It was the first time we’d all seen one another since getting vaccinated, and we savored the hugs and slow conversation. But our lunchtime catch-up was soon interrupted by a piercing, drawn-out noise—an immense, overpowering wail that rose and fell in waves, seeming to fill every particle of the air around us.

Conversations stopped. Dogs whined. My partner and I lunged for our phones and car keys at the same time. “We still haven’t done our go bag,” my partner whispered to me urgently, as I checked an app, pronounced the word “medical” like a benediction, and exhaled. I put my keys back on the table. Our friends stared questioningly. That was just the siren, I explained. It wasn’t a fire this time.

Early Newspaper

In recent years, Sonoma County has been hard hit by the wildfire crisis in the West. By county estimates, more than three hundred thousand acres, or slightly under a third of the county’s landmass, burned between 2017 and 2020. In my rural corner of the county, the blare of the local firehouse siren serves as a daily reminder that life in this woodland paradise is also life inside an unfolding climate disaster. Since our unincorporated area has unreliable cell-phone service and limited municipal services, the siren is the most reliable way to summon first responders; it shrieks for any fire or medical emergency call, day or night.

One of only a handful of such warning systems still in use in the county, the siren is a familiar presence, but its ring is always a surprise. It might go off several times in a day or only once in a week. Its reach varies with weather and landscape, but I’ve reliably heard it as far as a mile and a half away. Each sounding consists of four keening blasts and usually lasts about a minute, during which a listener has ample time to envision the vast range of catastrophes that could be presently befalling her home or her neighbors. As the drought in the West intensifies, and Sonoma County residents watch other communities across the state burn, the siren that once seemed like a quirky feature of rural life now feels like the soundtrack to a new era—a Pyrocene, as the fire historian Stephen J. Pyne has termed it.

The human relationship to fire on this specific piece of land was not always one of fear, anxiety, and militance. The land that is now western Sonoma County was, for many thousands of years, stewarded by the Southern Pomo, Kashia Pomo, and Coast Miwok people, whose practices included prescribed fires that kept the forests healthy and productive. Russian trappers and European loggers colonized the area in the nineteenth century, and trees became timber. Since then, shortsighted fire-suppression policies, an increased population in the wildland-urban interface, and extreme heat and drought caused by climate change have combined to create the current conditions.

Because of its proximity to the coast’s marine layer and the moist nature of the redwood habitat, western Sonoma County has historically been somewhat less fire prone than the drier eastern flank of the region. Still, in 2020, one of the largest fires of the most destructive wildfire season in California’s history burned within a few miles of my house. In the past two years, I have evacuated three times and packed my car in preparation many times more. By now, those of us who live beneath the trees have come to understand that there is no longer a question of whether fire will come to us; it’s only a matter of when.

After the lunchtime siren in June, I placed my emergency go bag next to my front door, where it will remain, if I’m lucky, for six months. While we anticipate the next fire, my neighbors and I go through the motions of disaster preparedness. Everyone prepares in her own way. I sleep with a headlamp and a bra next to my bed. One neighbor, the owner of a local insurance brokerage, invested in a camper van tricked out with solar panels—that way, she can work from anywhere. Another has organized a meditation circle, to ask the elements for coöperation. At a recent evacuation drill, one acquaintance confessed to me that she’d bought second copies of her favorite clothes on eBay and keeps them packed in case of evacuation.

My body and brain have developed an automatic response to the siren after years of fire scares. First, I feel a flicker of fear in my sacrum; then my hands begin to shake, and I reach for my phone. Even if the app—which shows the type and location of incoming 911 calls in the county, including those that cue the siren—says there isn’t a fire, my flight response has been activated. If it’s nighttime, I get out of bed. I stalk the windows like a cat, looking for signs of smoke above the tree line. I open the front door and smell the night and listen for unusual sounds: bad wind, helicopter blades overhead, the monstrous roar that wildfire victims talk about in interviews, after. I look for my shoes. There was that woman in Oregon last year who was found by her husband, unrecognizable, stripped by fire down to her underwear, barefoot. It turned out that her shoes had melted. In extreme heat, synthetic clothing can fuse to your skin, whereas natural fibres burn clean. I position my leather clogs by the door and finger the fabric of my pajamas. Cotton.

The firehouse siren dates back to the Second World War, when the West Coast anticipated an attack from the Pacific. It sounds like an air-raid siren because it is one, although it was never used as such. The alarm apparatus operates with three-phase power and has a fifteen-horsepower motor. Painted forest green to match its surroundings, the siren perches on the roof of the Camp Meeker Volunteer Fire Department (V.F.D.), looking more like a birdhouse than a bullhorn.

My next-door neighbor, Timothy Williams, has been a member of the V.F.D. for more than forty years. Williams is a soft-spoken but gregarious sixty-six-year-old man, whom I’ve never seen without a hat or helmet on. He invited me to visit the firehouse a few weeks ago, when the firefighters were running checks of their equipment. Out here, the V.F.D. is the first responder for all non-law-enforcement emergencies, including medical calls. Nearly seventy per cent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers. There are ten regulars on the Camp Meeker force, and they always need more, Williams hinted to me. He wasn’t joking.

The siren is usually triggered remotely, via radio-controlled relay. When the central dispatch center in Santa Rosa receives a call for our area, they send two distinct tones over VHF/FM radio that activate the alarm and alert the fire department. When Williams hears those tones on his own radio, he said, “I’m an automaton. I sit up, my legs swing out of the bed, I put my clothes on and go.” Williams explained that a majority of local siren calls are for medical emergencies, not fires. But he has seen the fire season grow worse and longer throughout the decades. The October, 2017, Tubbs Fire, in Santa Rosa, seemed to be a tipping point. “I used to think, O.K., we’ll have one catastrophic fire a year,” he said, “but now we’ll have numerous, multiple times a year.”​​ And with increased fire comes increased emotional and psychological stress. “In the moment, I have an obligation to hold it together,” Williams said.“But then it comes out, months later.”

Williams asked if I wanted to try triggering the alarm manually during the equipment check. I humored my inner ten-year-old kid and pushed the siren’s big red button with relish, keeping it depressed for twenty seconds, as instructed. That monumental wail unfurled from the roof above us. I hoped my neighbors knew it was only a test.

Whenever the siren ricochets through the forest, my phone lights up with messages from neighbors, just checking in. Most have the app, too, but something about the siren’s nerve-shattering melody inspires a desire for human contact. My neighbor Kelly Gray dreads the sound of the siren. The morning after my firehouse tour, she served me tea on her deck, which looks out on the same forest that borders my yard. It was hot out, again. Baby ravens cawed from a nearby nest, and we gazed up at a cathedral canopy of redwood trees.

Gray and I are fire buddies. We text each other every time the siren sounds. Last October, a two-acre vegetation fire started in the woods near the path between her house and mine. It was late at night. The siren woke us both up, and we evacuated together into the nearest town. This was amid the deep months of COVID isolation; we had only recently become friends, and had barely seen each other’s faces. Fire was what turned us from neighbors into kin. During last year’s fire season, Gray struggled with a mental-health crisis, and she believes the siren contributed to her distress. “It sounds like a thousand raging babies, screaming throughout the forest,” she said, as we sat on her deck. “And at that sound, you know, as a human animal, you just jump.”

Source:
A Soundtrack for an Unfolding Climate Disaster