Fight Fire With Fire, Not Prayers and Rituals

In case you aren’t aware, the Columbia River Gorge is on fire. Over the weekend, a group of teenagers setting off fireworks in the Eagle Creek canyon set dry brush ablaze, and as I write this over 20,000 acres are now burning, to include precariously close to well-loved landmarks like Multnomah Falls. Over 150 hikers had to be rescued by the Hood River Search and Rescue Team (who could really use donations, by the way.) The easternmost edges of the Portland metro area are under evacuation warnings, and over forty miles of Interstate 84 are closed in both directions.

What I want to tell you is about how broken I feel at this moment, how powerless and weak. I was thirteen when the woods that were my solace were bulldozed flat to the ground, an event that was legitimately traumatic for me and contributed to both my Generalized Anxiety Disorder and to my deep drive to learn about and protect non-human nature. I want to tell you about how I am suddenly back in that moment of despair, anger and helplessness, and fighting to not fall into the deep pain and disconnection that swallowed me for years afterward. I want to tell you about how the red clay of the earth torn up by machinery a quarter century ago is reflected in the flames in photos of my beloved Gorge, the first place that welcomed me with open arms when I moved to Portland a decade ago, and which is permanently tattooed on my left arm in gratitude. I want to tell you how difficult is it for me to keep to my daily schedule and list of tasks while I know that places where I have set foot for many years are burning to the ground, and all I want to do is curl up in my bed and cry.

Instead, what I am going to tell you is what led to this devastation, and how to respond in ways that actually have a concrete, measurable effect. Perhaps it is my grief and pain that make me more sensitive and cynical, but all the calls to “send energy to the firefighters” and rituals to try to make it rain just seem like wasted effort. Normally I shrug and let people do whatever their path says is right in this situation, but I am raw and angry and fed up as my sacred places burn. We don’t need prayers for rain. We need to stop the processes that are preventing the rain in the first place.

What is happening now is the culmination of centuries of human stupidity and greed. Our climate IS changing because of our industrial activities and the pollutants they create, as well as the destruction of mitigating natural factors like the oceans and forests that are supposed to absorb atmospheric carbon. This is leading to drier, hotter summers in the Northwest; this August was the hottest on record in Portland, and the rest of the area isn’t far behind. The entire area is a tinderbox of dead plants.

Add in many decades of fire suppression led by timber companies not wanting to lose their cash trees, and budget cuts that keep forestry services from engaging in prescribed burns. See, fire is natural in forests; some plants even need fire to properly germinate their seeds. But because fire also damages timber and threatens tourism, any natural lightning-strike fires have been quickly put out, and Smokey Bear reminds us that “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” But this all resulted in the understory of the forest–ferns, rhododendrons, salal, and more–growing much thicker than is natural, and many smaller trees getting a roothold where before fire would have thinned them out. This creates what is called ladder fuel, which allows fire to climb higher into the older trees who, in a normal intensity fire, be protected by their height and thick bark. When fire is allowed to occur naturally, it burns out the understory long before it gets too thick, and the big trees survive, and the seeds in the ground replenish the land. But we humans stopped that, and now all that built up tinder has exploded.

Add in one small group of ill-educated teenagers with illegal fireworks dropping them over a cliff into a pile of brush. Yes, the human brain doesn’t full develop until the mid-twenties, and the part that manages impulse control is still under construction in a fifteen-year-old. And here is where our lack of nature literacy become a problem: if children are raised from a very young age to constantly understand the risks of fire, it become a matter of course to act with respect. There are just certain things you don’t do, because you’ve been brought up with the knowledge of why and what happens when you don’t listen. Yet these entitled little scumsuckers apparently didn’t get the memo, because they were giggling like their act was a big adventure.

So: what to do? Here’s the game plan:

Educate yourself on the role of fire in forest ecosystems. This goes doubly so if you claim to be a nature-based pagan, or if you somehow think you have an affinity for the element of fire, because you’d damned well better know the actual nature of fire, and not just its mythos and romanticism. Educate yourself on how climate change is leading directly to bigger, hotter, worse fires. And once you’ve educated yourself, educate others, especially anyone who intends to spend any time outdoors.

Educate your elected officials on all levels about the need for prescribed burns and other forest management practices that will help undo the damage from fire suppression and hopefully mitigate the effects of climate change. Tell them to fund forestry and natural resources services on all levels of government instead of using those funds for really stupid ideas like building a giant wall at the south end of the country. And while you’re at it, make sure you tell them about the connection between climate change and the more devastating fires we’re having, especially if your elected officials are in the minority that happen to still be pretending human-caused climate change isn’t a scientifically-validated reality.

Urge the stakeholders in the land in the Gorge, both public and private to replant with a wide diversity of trees, not just Douglas firs. Logging companies like the Doug firs because they grow quickly and are valuable on the market, but when you have a landscape that has nothing but the same species, it becomes much more vulnerable to disease and parasites which lead to more dead trees–and more fire fodder. Moreover, they plant the trees more close together than they would be naturally, and as the trees are all the same age there isn’t as much chance for bigger, older trees to shade out smaller ones and thin the herd, as it were. A healthy forest has many trees of different species and ages for a reason, and monocrops of Douglas firs contributed to the fires we now see. Or, better yet, let the forest recover on its own and at its own pace. Here, educate yourself on forest succession and how a forest can come back all on its own.

Donate money to those who are actively fighting the fires and help people evacuate. I don’t care if all you can give is a single dollar–it HELPS. There will no doubt be local environmental and conservation organizations working to restore the natural and historical features of the Gorge in the aftermath of this, so be on the lookout for their calls for funding.

–And when those organizations call for volunteers, if you’re close enough and can do so, step up. Even a few hours helps. Right now if you want to volunteer call the Hood River Sheriff’s Department at 541-387-7035. And there will be ongoing work. I have spent the past couple of years volunteering for Cascade Pika Watch, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do a post-fire survey this fall to see how many places still have pikas afterward. The Friends of the Columbia River Gorge  and Columbia Riverkeeper are also highly active in this beautiful area’s ecosystem restoration, so no doubt they’ll be involved in whatever work is ahead.

–Work to fight climate change, the biggest factor contributing to greater forest fires, as well as the more violent hurricanes that have been bludgeoning the Southeast. Don’t know where to start with such an admittedly tall order? Here. The Drawdown website lists the 100 biggest causes of climate change and how to fix them. The book goes into even more detail. Pick just one of those causes and put effort toward it, whether it involves making changes in your own life, or pressuring corporations and/or governments to change themselves.That’s how you get started, and you can take that as far as you’re willing. Then pick another cause, and work on it. And so on.

–Most importantly, educate yourself on nature and how it works. We’ve spent centuries trying to distance ourselves from the rest of nature, and it’s been terrible for everyone and everything involved. Maybe if we pagans were as picky about how our paths line up with science as we do with history, we would be a greater force for the planet. Try starting your education with this bioregion quiz from the Ehoah website.

Finally, I know I was pretty harsh on those of you who are praying for rain and trying to send energy to the firefighters and all that. Even if all your rites do is give you some solace in a tough time, that’s constructive enough; just please also focus some on the efforts that are absolutely proven to have a more direct effect on the fires and what caused them. Let your rites inspire you to take more physical action, rather than replacing it. We can’t wave our wands and chant our chants and expect the fire to go out, but we can put our money where our mouth is when it comes to claiming to be practitioners of nature-based spirituality, especially when we need to undo the damage we’ve done to nature more than ever.

ETA: A brief clarification on this post may be found here, specifically addressing people’s concerns that I was too critical of the prayers, spells and the like.

19 Comments.
  1. Linda

    I agree there is a lot we can do to educate ourselves and take action, but it does not negate the power of thoughts and energy. Even if you don’t believe thoughts do anything outwardly, they definitely do something inwardly. I had to work hard yesterday to move from wishing bad consequences on those teenagers, to compassion for the fact that at some point, whether now or a distant future, they will face the devastation and know they were the cause. What a tragic burden they have given themselves! They will know it in the place that cannot be brushed away. And compassion for their family who have to live with this too. When I moved through that process from anger to kindness, it opened me to be able to take some physical/financial action.

    • Yes, and as I said, if rituals help give you solace that’s value in and of itself. But I’m seeing a lot of people saying “pray for rain!” and I’m not sure many of them are doing much else. I have absolutely no evidence that prayers for rain will have any actual effect on whether it rains or not; I’m waiting for all the confirmation bias where people look at the rain system that was already on its way in and say “Look, our magic worked!” I would much rather put my efforts toward things that I KNOW will have an effect.

      As to compassion, this is something I wrote on FB yesterday as I was processing:

      “I am trying very hard to maintain compassion toward those who anger me, because it is a healthy practice to never dehumanize people, even those who act atrociously. I am trying to remember that the fifteen-year-old whose firecrackers set off the Eagle Creek fire that is now consuming the Columbia River Gorge has a brain that isn’t fully developed yet, particularly in the parts that control impulses and judgement, and that he may have had shitty parenting, and that it’s highly unlikely he had a plan to set a beloved scenic area on fire.

      “At the same time, there is a part of me that is absolutely enraged at him, that hopes he’s tried as an adult and that it *hurts*, and that he and his family are ostracized for the rest of their lives. I have to tell that part that chances are very good that this kid is horrified by what he’s done, and no prison sentence or fines will equal the guilt he’ll carry with him from here on out. But it’s damned hard to remember that right now.”

    • So I guess you still need to make a lot of internal work Linda as thinking they will face the consequences one day is just another way of wishing them evil. A covert way.

      • Linda

        I’ll have to disagree with you Cordelia, as once again, the written word doesn’t always translate well and I may not have explained myself well. I have moved to feeling empathy for those kids, being reminded of some of the things I did in poor judgement in my own youth without understanding the consequences, and how painful it can be when that understanding comes home to roost.

    • It seems you believe in karma Linda, so please be coherent and know there are consequences too everyone who refuses to take action to end suffering and tragedies, the consequences arrive for you too not only for people who enrage you. Lupa is not criticizing your path, the author is simply making a very constructive and needed criticism. No path is perfect and if your don’t take practical action to end a fire so your path is wrong. Prayers are good but not enough at all.

      • Linda

        No need to be hostile, or to assume I believe in Karma. If you went on to read Lupa’s second post and the comments, you would have seen that I have apologized. I, too, was feeling despair yesterday and writing through emotion without really thinking carefully about what I was doing. Please don’t assume that because I had an issue with the criticism about Pagans who do nothing but ritual without backing it with action that I personally do nothing but pray/send energy. It’s just that I do have elderly Pagan friends who have neither the financial resources or physical ability to do much more than ritual for what is going on.

  2. Linda

    (Had to continue here because it wouldn’t allow me to post my entire comment) In a Eutopian society, everyone would educate their children in the great ways you talked about here Lupa, but unfortunately, that is not the case. I love reading your blog, but sometimes Lupa, your posts are condescending. I can appreciate your grief, I feel it too, as do many others just as deeply as you do. But your path is yours, and I respect that. Please give the same respect to the paths of others without shaming them for not doing what you choose to do. Education is one thing, but giving the impression that other aren’t doing enough or doing it “right” because they’re not doing it your way is another thing entirely. Thanks.

    • I feel there HAS to be room for criticism in paganism. My main critiques have been over the use of science, or rather its misuse. This time yes, i am criticizing a particular practice–meeting a tragedy with spells and prayers rather than concrete action. I am not saying these things are never, ever valid, but right now when the fires are burning hot I am urging people to back their spiritual practices with actions.

      Which is what I spent most of this post talking about, so I find it frustrating that you singled out that one element of it and seem to have apparently ignored the rest.

  3. Helen

    Leaving myself open for all kinds of criticism here but as a scientifically educated and working person who sees first hand the massive chunk of reality that the narrow, evidence obsessed scientific method misses, I can’t put total faith in science, it is horribly flawed. Also, yes, we can educate ourselves and our kids to protect nature, I suspect that is what most genuine pagan folks do anyway, but spells and prayers are ON TOP of that, that is our SPIRITUAL and MAGICAL work, and to dismiss magic as lacking evidence is an attempt to drag a vast practice into the narrow science box and pick it apart til its dead. Magic and its practice, though diluted and miscommunicated too often, is powerful and valuable in a world which has frankly lost so much of its soul that it now prays to science. Apologies for sounding harsh but I see science dissecting where it shouldn’t and missing the point entirely and it just pisses me off.

    • I will be the first to admit that science is flawed; it was inaccurate science that led to the buildup of ladder fuels, among other problems that have led to this current tragedy.

      As to pagans educating their children, I have run into entirely too many pagans who are woefully science-ignorant, and who have little knowledge of how nature actually works. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of pagans who are deeply rooted in physical nature, but there’s a wide divergence from that as well.

      Not all pagans believe in or practice magic; yes, it is a common practice, but not universal. If people want to do these practices that’s their prerogative, but right now I am frustrated that prayers for rain seem to be outnumbering calls to really press home the need to fight climate change.

      And again–why are you picking out one small detail in my post while largely ignoring the rest?

  4. Linda

    “Why are you picking out one small detail in my post while largely ignorning the rest?” I’m not ignoring the rest, but when you criticize the methods of others, you need to be prepared for them to be unhappy. You can give the same information without insulting the way others choose to deal with crisis. And why does their have to be room for “criticism?” Why not room for just plain old discussion? Criticism is one sided. It is like a slap in the face. It encourages emotions rather than reasonable debate, discussion or education. Meanwhile, thank you for the great suggestions on where and how to be helpful. I was aware of some, but not all of the groups you mentioned.

    • I think you and I may have different opinions on what constitutes both criticism and its role in discussion.

      Yes, this is a deeply emotional post, as I wrote it as a way to process my grief, so it is harsher than I might otherwise write. But I feel that I am able to express anger when I see people who ONLY promote prayer and magic and don’t act to do things that have more immediate concrete benefits.

      And thank you for making use of the resources I’ve provided.

  5. Excellent article Lupa. I’ve lived in fire country much of my life, and my paganism is very much a ruralist approach. I’m also one of the people evacuated from the Eagle Creek Fire.

    The one critique I have of this is the notion of “natural fire cycles” and that “we humans” stopped all that about a century ago. Should read: “we white people stopped/banned Native American practice of regular burning in the forest.” While certainly there were natural fires in forests here before European invasion, much of the fires were also part of regular tribal practices throughout North America. I can provide references on that if you’re interested. Fortunately that practice is gaining some traction again with Forest Service officials, at least in California.

    • Ack, you are absolutely right. I tunnel-visioned on this one; thanks for the correction.

    • Please, don’t put all whites in the same bag. When most Natives were banned and persecuted I and people of my generation wasn’t even born.

      • Patrick Garretson

        Really? I’m making a point that forest fires were part of Native American practice which was banned by our white ancestors, and all you can say is “not all white people”. FFS.

  6. stuartjeffery

    I’m sorry to hear this, it is clearly very distressing but thank you for sharing. I think the central point of your call is a good one, some Pagans are more keen on ritual and prayer but not so keen on action.

    I like the mantra from The Warrior’s Call: Ritual as Action, Action as Ritual. Both are important.

    Personally I don’t think we do ourselves justice if we don’t do both. It is all very good holding nature as sacred, taking part in a grove and praying to the gods and goddesses, but if we then jump in a 4×4, shop till we drop and fly off every weekend for a minibreak then we are not honouring nature but playing a key role in hurting her.

    Whether action is direct such as helping fight those fires, raising money, learning about the ecosystem or reducing our footprint, all these actions are good to take.

    I hope the fire dies soon and you get your gorge back quickly.

  7. Humans can bring tragedy to life and yet they also can bring love and sharing , compassion unity when they realize their connection with the Spirit within themselves.
    Prayer is asking for help and silence is listening for guidance. There is no magic there.
    We still have a long way to go as human beings and when we are all gone nature will still thrive.
    Migwitch

Leave a Reply to Patrick Garretson Cancel reply