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September 7, 2021

Lake Tahoe is burning: 5 Things to Look at before the Smoke Clears.

I remember the first time I had to flee from a wildfire.

The fires had been a safe distance away when I finally fell asleep that night. Exhausted and afraid, I allowed the fatigue to keep me suspended in a half-dream, half-awake state. Then, a thought started to echo in my mind. “If I am having trouble breathing, how are the cats doing? Their lungs are so much smaller.”

With that, I sat bolt upright in my bed. The real scent of smoke hit me. “We need to get out of here now,” I told myself.

Dazed and panicked, I grabbed the pet carriers. Luckily, my furry friends sensed that they needed to cooperate. So they willingly climbed in. We ran to the car and drove to a Walmart parking lot where we waited for the sun to come up. No dramatic outcome that time. A few hours later, we were able to return home. Our house was spared, but four others in my neighborhood burned.

Different versions of this story are now playing out across the West. Too many have heartbreaking endings. The bears, the deer, the birds, along with many other creatures are fleeing. My heart breaks for those who do not make it. My heart breaks for those who cannot find a safe place to shelter.

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I’ve never lived at Lake Tahoe. Rather, I was born at her feet. I have spent most of my life in her shadow. I take a weekly pilgrimage up her slopes and sometimes, I stay for longer visits. This is much like the native Washoe Indians who cared for this land long before Europeans arrived. Her winters are much too harsh for all but the most heavily equipped. Tahoe is a place that has earned respect.

Here are the 5 things I am looking at, as Tahoe, the iconic jewel of my homeland is being overcome by flames:

1. This land is sacred.

Tahoe is much more than a pristine alpine Lake. It is also the land, region, and ecosystem that surrounds the water.

One of the few remaining Washoe Medicine men shared with me the legend of Tahoe. His people were transported from South America to the base of Lake Tahoe by a supernatural coyote. Once they arrived at this spot, civilization began. Tahoe comes from the Washoe word for water. She is regarded as the center of the universe.

Although we may have forgotten, land is sacred. Some parts of this planet express such a degree of beauty that many people come to pray and to gaze in awe. Tahoe is such a place. Before she held a lake, she was a mountain. She lived under the sea we now call the Great Basin. After eons, too much pressure built up and needed to be released. So, she exploded. She transformed into a massive volcano whose crater would fill with water. Eventually, she became the sparkling sapphire that so many have come to love, surrounded by a ring of cedar, ponderosa, and pine.

2. Firefighters are heroes.

Their work is punishing. Digging ditches, clearing underbrush, traversing unstable ground. Through blood, sweat, and tears, they do all of this while facing an inferno—sometimes for weeks at a time. These are the bravest among us. They risk their lives to help others. They rush into the places that others run from. They rescue those who are too weak, unaware, or just trapped. Some of these people assist others as their own homes are burning and their own families are evacuating.

Some of these people aren’t firefighters by profession. Some of them step into the role in an instant when they make the decision to help their neighbor or a struggling animal. These are the helpers, the humble warriors who live among us. We can remember that they represent the best in us. We can try to embody their courage and willingness to help.

3. We have to change the way we are doing things.

Tahoe has been a generous host. She has welcomed generations from across the globe. She has delighted us as we ride down her snow-covered slopes. She has held us in her healing waters and revived us with her fragrant scent of pine. It is human nature to be drawn to such beauty, so we have built structures on her and deterred her native animals from getting too close to us. I wonder if Tahoe needs some space.

Too often, we do not truly appreciate what we have until it is threatened or gone. Perhaps Tahoe needs less of our consumerism and more of our adoration.

The forest service has been working more with the natives of this land. Collectively, we are learning. The ancient tribes who cared for these lands hold valuable knowledge. They know better ways to relate to this land. They do not pretend that we could ever own her. We are learning to listen and relearn this knowledge and these traditions. Now is the time to act on this wisdom.

4. We are visitors here.

Nature does not need us; we need nature. One great lesson of the pandemic is the value of nature. During the quarantine, we craved connection with the land around us and her creatures. For many, nature is a lifeline and a healer. Many flocked to Tahoe during this time because they needed to be in a place that inspired life. They needed a refuge away from the crowded, claustrophobic cities. Tahoe welcomed them.

Tahoe has changed throughout the ages. This is not her first fire. She was born of fire, born of a powerful volcano. She will continue to change. Tahoe lives on a timeline that is much larger than our human lives. We will never see the parts of her that have burned restored to their previous glory in our lifetimes. Likely, not in the lifetimes of our children either. It is our loss. Tahoe will heal. On the other hand, without Tahoe and other sacred lands, we may not survive.

5. Community expands in times of crisis.

As heat, flames, and toxic gases chase the living from a burning forest, those who are able to flee scatter in all directions. They seek refuge in the surrounding lands. We see this with war, floods, and fires. Near Tahoe, tens of thousands of people have been displaced. Many have been welcomed to evacuation centers, discounted hotels, and private homes. An unknown number of animals, wild, and domesticated have also found relief and support. The surrounding streams, overflowing garbage cans, and private sanctuaries have proved life-saving. Donations and people volunteering to help in whatever way they can have showed up too.

Interestingly, during this same time, a Renegade Burning Man festival was in full swing just hours Northeast of Tahoe. This year, it was a community-inspired event which respectfully excluded much of the fire-burning activities of prior burns. True to the spirit and purpose of community, it was a place for people to come together to celebrate, grieve, pray, and envision.

Burning man has become known as a welcoming home for many academics, artists, changemakers, and eccentrics. It is a beautiful representation of what communities need to be: fully inclusive and always welcoming. It also reflects our need to be better stewards of the land and its resources. Sustainability and eco respect is crucial to our survival as humans. We have the knowledge and the inspiration. We can each make the decision to honor our sacred lands. We can continue to teach by example and remind those who disrespect these lands that there is a better way. We can also learn from the Burning Man community about civic responsibility. We can offer our time and energy to clean up and restore the earth after unconscious people have trashed her. We can act as leaders in our micro-communities and repeatedly make the small choices that honor our land.

Our time on this planet is short. We need to be mindful of its fragility and work hard to embrace habits that preserve its life-giving essence.


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