Amazon devastation should provoke empathy from East County residents familiar with fire

It’s been a tough week for the rainforest, according to the media. Everyone from celebrities to the French president to, most likely, your next door neighbor has had something to say about the flames engulfing sections of the Amazon in Brazil, a two million square mile stretch of rainforest that houses 10 million animal species and is said to produce 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen.

East County is no stranger to wildfires. We’ve seen our mountains and hillsides scorched, watched smoke rise from the ashes of our backcountry. We’ve rushed our livestock to safety, seen them tremble with anxiety, so acutely aware of a danger our senses do not register as quickly. We’ve closed schools and ushered our children to safer corners of the county, prayed for our homes left behind and the well-being of our neighbors stuck on clogged roads.

When the West Fire ripped through Alpine last summer, I went out to get photos for our coverage. I pulled over on the shoulder of Interstate-8 as it runs parallel with Alpine Boulevard where other news trucks were setting up shop.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, my senses went into a panic. Although the fire below us was contained with only a few hotspots still garnering attention from the fire crews, the smoke hung heavy in the air. It was unusually warm. Even the breeze felt hot. It took several minutes of telling my brain that I was safe for the rest of my nerves to calm down enough to work.

Not until I was driving back down the highway, away from the fire and in the controlled air of my car, that I realized what I had experienced was just a very small taste of what fire victims go through, both people and animals.

The experience has certainly affected my views on the fires in the Amazon.

Although there is plenty of room for controversy – what is responsible for these fires: climate change, deforestation, seasonal droughts? – and certainly a flood of statistics and doomsday predictions that come largely without context, leaving readers uncomfortably under-informed, one thing we can be sure about: fires are devastating.

Even if this were not a global crisis, even if it does not potentially have long-term consequences on our environment or climate, it has an immediate effect on the residents of Brazil. There are roughly 1 million indigenous people divided into some 400 tribes living in the Amazon. Their homes and livelihoods are in flames.

Surely, East County residents can relate to that.

The conversation over the rainforest so easily becomes a political platform. The Left immediately pulls out its notecards on man-made climate change. The Right immediately plugs their ears.

I believe climate change is a topic worth talking about at length and with purpose.

But I also believe that the Amazonian fires fall outside the realm of political fodder. This is a tragedy for those involved. This is personal for millions of people, people affected by the flames and the smoke and the wake of whatever comes when the skies finally clear.

We know. We’ve been there.

So what can we do in our cozy homes here in East County?

For starters, we can begin contributing meaningfully to the broader conversation of conservation and stewardship of this planet.

There are organizations that we can donate to – Amazon Watch, World Wildlife Fund, etc. – that work with indigenous people and make efforts to conserve endangered species that may be affected by fires like these.

Many of these fires were started by cattle owners in an effort to clear land. Although we cannot force them to be more cautious in their business practices, we can choose not to by their products (that is the power of capitalistic social change, after all). Look for locally, ethically raised beef your supermarket or butcher shop. Your local butcher may actually have some good recommendations for you.

Does that sound silly to you? Are we really cutting back on eating beef to protect the rainforest?

You tell me. Did our grandparents stop using sugar during the war effort, or collect bottle caps to contribute to the need for metals?

We would not be the first generation to make many small sacrifices for a much bigger purpose. There is greatness in humility of circumstances. And I choose to believe that our community is not so fat on convenience that we cannot make a concerted, conscious effort to buy better, to make a statement with our checkbooks.

It’s the least we can do, really.

I’m still finding myself on the shoulder of that highway, choking on hot wind, eyes streaming from the smoke and the heat. And that was just the aftermath.

It is not cliche or weak to be an empathetic people. Compassion is a strength, a luxury of the truly powerful. Let us use it.