Uncontrollable Wildfire, Water Supply & Smart Paths Forward – An evening with Fernanda Santos and Kimery Wiltshire
We spent an evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club with award-winning author and journalist Fernanda Santos. We talked about fire and water, and how those two meet in the American West in the time of climate change. Our focus was on what some amazing communities and amazing community leaders are doing across the American West right now to make their communities as resilient as possible to whatever climate change sends our way.
This is an edited version of the conversation.
Full podcast is available here.
I started to think about how many times we wait for federal agencies to do things for us. But a lot of times, in our communities, we can also play a role in protecting ourselves. We can also get the grants, get the fire crews, get the defensible space carved out around our own properties and towns.
Kimery: Tonight, Fernanda and I will talk about fire and water, and about how those two meet in the American West in the time of climate change. And we’re not talking about just any wildfire, of course. We’re talking about catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfire. And we’re not talking about just any rain events. We’re talking about extreme weather events. But our focus is going to be on what some amazing communities and amazing community leaders are doing across the American West right now to make their communities as resilient as possible to whatever climate change sends our way.
Fernanda: So let’s start with fire. In 2013, I was a bureau chief for The New York Times in the Southwest. A big fire started to burn near the little town of Yarnell, Arizona. There was a lightning strike into the dried brush at the top of a mountain, and it burned for two days without much concern, fueled by thick brush that the town had not thinned. But on Sunday, June 30th, 2013, the fire took the lives of 19 young firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Dozens of houses burned as well. It was beyond tragic. I covered the story for The New York Times that year, and in 2016, I went back to Yarnell.
In June of 2016, on the east side of Yarnell, another lightning strike started a fire. But something had changed in those three years, and because of that immense loss of life. The Yarnell fire chief had committed to creating buffer zones between the brush and the town, and the firefighters were able to manage that more recent fire. No one died. No houses burned.
This time I wrote another story, about the lessons learned, and I started to think about how many times we wait for federal agencies to do things for us. But a lot of times, in our communities, we can also play a role in protecting ourselves. We can also get the grants, get the fire crews, get the defensible space carved out around our own properties and towns. We must also understand the risk if we’re going to live so close to the wilderness. Our houses may well burn, and we can decide not to put the lives of young people on the line to protect our property.
So this is my fire story opened my eyes to how, in even what may seem like small ways, we can change things.
Kimery: The Yarnell story is one of such tragedy and one of enormous hope. Because this community went ahead and did what needed to be done. They’re doing the same thing in the Middle Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico.
2011 was a big fire year, especially in New Mexico, where the Las Conchas Fire started burning in the Jemez Mountains, and it burned and burned and burned. And then after the fire, this being the Southwest the monsoon rains came. And those monsoons unleashed a torrent of mud – a mud flood very like the ones we just saw in Southern California.
Those mud floods flowed downhill. They took out Pueblo farmland. They took out a world-famous apple orchard. And then they went roaring into the middle stretch of the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande ran black for days from the ash and debris. Albuquerque had to shut off its water intake into the Rio Grande. By some miracle, nobody was killed.
Fast-forward a couple of years and a group of local citizens, business people, folks from the Pueblos, from the Forest Service, from environmental groups, from local government, said, you know, “We’ve got to do something about these fires. They’re just going to continue. The water is our lifeblood.
They created the Rio Grande Water Fund to restore the forest, and also provide good jobs in the woods. To date, they’ve raised a couple of million dollars and started work in key watersheds. As the visionaries in Flagstaff, Arizona, have said: our water infrastructure is in this forest, and it’s up to us to ensure it keeps providing us water.
Both of these stories are great examples of three themes that characterize smart water solutions in the West:
- First is a theme of strategic, diverse partnerships where people bring different resources, different ideas, different perspectives, and different constituencies to the table.
- Second is a theme of identifying and prioritizing multi-benefit solutions that you get from restoring forests and protecting water supplies. It’s about more than water and forests: it’s jobs, it’s about climate resiliency, and it’s also about our health.
- Third is a theme of fair sharing of water for people, for the rivers, and for growing the food that we eat.
Fernanda: On that note I’m going to share one more story that encapsulates that third theme really beautifully. It’s from the Lower Colorado River area in Yuma, Arizona, where 90% of the leafy greens that we consume in the entire United States in the winter are produced.
A few years ago, I learned of the work some Hispanic evangelical pastors were doing in the area to educate their congregations about the importance of preserving the river. But from a very different perspective, which is preserving the planet because it’s God’s creation.
These communities have big, big, existential questions to grapple with at church, and in their lives – about the border, poverty, the drug cartels, their kids’ futures. The Colorado River is their playground, it’s free and it’s a place to take your family on the weekend, and thus this community knows that the river is getting lower and lower and more and more polluted.
So these pastors started introducing the idea of caring for the river. They started having these Sunday outings after service to go in and clean up the riverbed. If they have a church picnic, they take the trash away and they pick other trash too. From there they went on to talking about conserving water, and then this approach started to spread throughout the river valley among the communities who work in these fields, and whose work turns Colorado River water into food.
I came back from that trip transformed by this group of people, whom I never would have associated with climate protection or environmentalism. They have become these great ambassadors, grounded in their spiritual obligation to protect the river, and knowing that protecting the river is good for our kids and our communities.
That’s the kind of approach that can really change things from the ground up, and it’s one of the stories Carpe Diem West highlighted in its 10th anniversary report, Climate Chaos & Local Resiliency – Water Solutions in the American West, where you can read more.
Fernanda Santos is the author of “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” winner of the Western Writers of America 2017 Spur Award for Best First Book Nonfiction. Fernanda has reported in three languages, in Latin America and across the United States and was a New York Times correspondent in the American Southwest. She got her start in journalism in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, her home country, where she bore witness to violence, inequality and immeasurable hope. In those scenes, she found her passion for telling true stories.
Kimery Wiltshire is the Executive Director of Carpe Diem West and former Director of the Kenney Foundation, where she worked on initiatives to protect and restore river systems in the western United States. Kimery has led the development of a number of projects, including the Diversity Network Project, supporting social justice and housing in the context of urban environmental health; Resources for Community Collaboration, which provided funding and training for western rural communities to more effectively engage in resource decision making; the Sustainable Business Ratings System, an innovative means of assessing companies’ environmental, economic and social performance; and Girl Scouts Save the Bay, which grew to involve the 100,000-strong Northern California Girl Scout community. For over twenty years, Kimery’s work has focused on building strategic, solution focused partnerships to meet water and climate challenges.
Photo Credit: Kari Greer