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Mopping up sweat, mopping up fires: The new normal for summer

“We hiked in baked-potato-hot, ankle-deep ash that blew eerily in the wind like shed snakeskins to finish off dying wildfires by stirring and cooling the molten detritus with sharpened shovels. To finish the job, we sprayed dribbles of water from the fat bags that sloshed like heavy vertigo on our backs.”

— Ruth Nolan, “Mopping Up,” 2018

Ruth Nolan is one of the editors of “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” which is the book I’m writing about during August. A former firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District, Nolan now teaches creative writing at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California.

“Mopping Up” is one of six contributions Nolan made to “Fire and Rain,” an anthology of ecopoetry organized by California landscapes: Coast and Ocean; Coastal Redwoods; Hills and Canyons; Fields and Meadows; Desert; Rivers, Lakes and Lagoons; Sierra Nevada and Cascades; and Cities, Towns and Roads. Many of the landscapes depicted in the poems and essays extend across invisible borders into Southern Oregon, where we are encountering similar effects to our landscapes from drought, low snow-pack and increasing numbers of wildfires.

As I write this week, the Bootleg fire that has burned outside of Klamath Falls since June has already consumed more than 400,000 acres and, despite some rain Tuesday, remains only 53% contained. I chose an excerpt from Nolan’s essay to begin this column because she uses a firefighter’s perspective to describe how difficult it is to fully extinguish a wildfire.

She writes: “We could never be sure the fire was completely out, so we stirred ash, sifted through what had been scorched, and watched each unearthed ember spark hot and red, then whoosh unto its puffy last breath.”

Meanwhile, smoky summer days have become part of the “new normal” in Southern Oregon. Lately, the smoke and extreme heat have pretty much doused my enthusiasm for gardening. I can’t find the energy to stake up my flopping flowers, or start seeds for a fall crop. I let the birds eat all of the ripened apricots, rather than having to venture out in the heat and smoke to harvest them for myself.

I couldn’t just sit around and feel guilty that I’m being a neglectful gardener, so I flew to Denver last week to help my daughter move to Salt Lake City. Crossing the dry terrain in a U-Haul, we kept heading into hazy horizons. Both Colorado and Utah (as well as many other states) have been affected by smoke from dozens of wildfires burning in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Along with higher than normal temperatures, smoky summers are becoming common in many areas of the U.S.

I stopped feeling guilty about being a neglectful gardener, and started feeling guilty for the environmental mess that my generation has left for our children, and their children, and their children … to take responsibility for mopping up.

When we arrived in Salt Lake City, my daughter’s landlord told me he’s distressed about the lawn grass dying this year from the excessive heat and an invasion of grubs, the larvae of beetles, which feed on grass roots. I told him about Eco-Lawn, a blend of drought-tolerant fescue grasses that doesn’t need fertilizing and requires only minimal mowing. I also told him about alternative lawn mixtures that include different clovers, grasses and low-growing annual and perennial flowers.

We talked about removing the turf grass in order to sow Eco-lawn or wildflower seed mixes in the fall, or covering the existing grass with 4-6 inches of soil and overseeding with the new mixture over several seasons. Then the landlord said maybe he’ll just wait to see if the grass comes back next spring.

I can’t say that I blame him. I didn’t tell him that dead grass won’t spring back to life; however, turf grass that has gone into dormancy from the heat will green up again if it continues to receive light watering during periods of drought.

I think the new normal for lawns will increasingly become turf grass alternatives, but change is hard and slow — much like putting out wildfires.

Back in the 1980s, when Ruth Nolan was fighting fires in the California desert, BLM’s strategy for land management was to quash fire outbreaks immediately, allowing ladder fuels to build up in forestlands. One positive outcome of the Bootleg fire is that officials are now seeing how prescribed fires and tree thinning in some areas during recent years have helped to minimize fire spread.

In “Mopping Up,” Nolan also remembers what it was like to be one of only a few women firefighters. She writes about how “often the guys on the crew asked me why I’d left behind the apron of my domesticity to flirt with flames instead of them.” Although she had lived in the desert since childhood and saw firefighting as a fight for her homeland, she was told by some men that she didn’t belong there.

Today, according to the National Fire Protection Association, there are about 94,000 female career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S. I hope this means we’re beginning to understand that everyone belongs when it comes to the work of mopping up wildfires and other environmental problems.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening to-do list this week

When my energy and enthusiasm for gardening lag during summer, I slow way down and let things go a bit. I find that trying to fight the messiness of my late-summer gardens just adds to my exhaustion, so I try to find beauty in the chaos.

I am going to work indoors to start seeds for fall/winter crops: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, kale and Swiss chard. I know I’m getting a late start, but maybe the seeds won’t notice.