2021 Recipient: Sarah Niederholzer

AURG Blog Post 2021-2022

 During the early hours of November 8th, 2018, a fire began in Pulga, an unincorporated community outside of Paradise, California. Winds were incredibly high during the prior week, and the Paradise area received less than an inch of rain between May 1, 2018, and the start of the fire. Historically, the average rainfall for the region during that same period was over seven inches (Cappucci and Samenow, 2018). The unusually dry conditions and vigorous downslope winds were particularly dangerous considering Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) failure to trim the trees surrounding their electrical boxes and transmission lines. Before sunrise on November 8th a piece of hardware that secured the wires on electrical tower 27/222 broke and sparks rained down onto the forest below (Gee and Anguiano 2020). Because PG&E had not trimmed back nearby trees to a safe distance, these sparks ignited what would soon be known as the Camp Fire. 17 days later it had displaced 56,000 people, burned 153,335 acres of land, and destroyed 18,800 structures (almost 14,000 of which were residences) (Boghani 2019). In the chaos, 85 people died. This was largely due to the intensity and speed with which the fire tore through the town, leaving some residents without adequate time to flee.

Burned Trees
Looking up at the Paradise ridge from Butte Creek Canyon, trees burnt by the Camp Fire in the foreground. Taken November 2021.

In the weeks that followed, an enormous number of volunteers and first responders, including many who had lost their own homes, mobilized to control the blaze and rescue humans and nonhumans alike—dogs, cats, birds, livestock, and deer among other nonhuman species. A multitude of factors coalesced, demonstrating just how difficult it is to restore even a small town in the wake of a devastating natural disaster. These challenges included a deluge of evacuees and pre-existing socioeconomic distress in rural Butte County, including a high incidence of disabled citizens and limited access to addiction treatment or mental health resources in the region. Non-traditional housing was common on the Paradise ridge (e.g., multifamily or multigenerational homes, temporary/makeshift structures, etc.) which complicated the losses even further for these individuals who previously relied upon low or no cost housing. The fire left them with no shelter, belongings, or proof that they once had them at all. Over three years later, the recovery process is far from over. Many people and problems were overlooked, purposefully or otherwise, going unnoticed or unattended to for reasons I aimed to explore in my honors thesis. A fire survivor described this situation aptly during one of our conversations: “if you were already living on the edge you fell through the cracks.”

As I formulated my research project in conversations with UC Davis faculty and developed my ideas through interactions with interlocutors, I saw the Camp Fire and the ripple effects it sent throughout Butte County (and beyond) as an opportunity to examine two areas of growing anthropological interest—multispecies ethnography and the anthropology of disaster. Anthropologists have long been concerned with nonhuman roles in society and how they form relationships with human beings. This research focus has become particularly popular since the advent of the Anthropocene and increasing concerns about humans’ connections with our ecological surroundings that accompany this geological epoch. Research concerning natural disasters and their political, economic, and social consequences is also an increasingly prevalent interest in the discipline (due in no small part to our planet’s increasing climatic instability). Yet these two foci have not converged as frequently as I believe they should. As I demonstrated in my research and writing, natural disasters cause drastic social and environmental changes, and humans are not the only creatures these changes impact. Rather, both human and nonhuman worlds are upended during a natural disaster, and everyone must learn to inhabit new environmental and social domains in the post-disaster period. Combining analyses of natural disaster and human catastrophe with ethnographic work that emphasizes a well-rounded, multispecies research model produces work in which we can more fully understand the effects multispecies relationships have on disasters and disaster recovery, as well as the influence of changing environments on more-than-human networks. 

During my time conducting research in Butte County, I volunteered with various organizations that were involved (directly and indirectly) in Camp Fire recovery efforts. I also held interviews with fire survivors and various volunteers that aided in the fire’s immediate aftermath, many of whom I met during my interactions in the field. These experiences formulated the arguments that I present in my paper. I began this project with a set of questions that quickly shifted and transformed as I sat in local coffee shops with my interlocutors, volunteered at county-wide events, canvassed Paradise and Chico (the larger college town west of Paradise) on foot, and read dozens of local newspaper articles covering the fire’s aftermath.

I spent most of my fieldwork trying to understand the relationships between humans and nonhuman animals after the Camp Fire. In conversations with interlocutors, I recognized that some fire victims directly referred to their nonhuman companions as family members. Others implied it in the ways they narrated their everyday multispecies intimacy (sharing mealtime and hobbies, providing emotional support for one another, etc.), some interlocutors explaining to me the ways their families and those they knew navigated the destabilizing aftermath of the fire as an interdependent family unit. Through these interactions and my extensive literature search, particularly analyzing the work of anthropologists Radhika Govindrajan and Marshall Sahlins, I formulated an argument suggesting that these humans and nonhumans had formed kinship relationships.

This argument relied on evidence from my interlocutors’ explanations of their multispecies relationships and my interpretation of their explicit or implicit use of kinship terms in describing them—referring to nonhumans as “family” and “loved ones.” I also drew upon experiences from my time volunteering in local shelters wherein I observed and interacted with individuals and their companion animals. Through accumulating these experiences and digesting the relevant literature, I problematized both the structure of emergency shelters in the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire (such as FEMA camps and transitional housing) and how both individual donors and larger philanthropic organizations chose to allocate funds to victims and their families. Conversations with interlocutors revealed that fire victims frequently and consistently made housing choices based on the welfare of their animals, exhibiting ceaseless commitment to keeping their families together. Many chose precarious housing situations—including staying in their cars or tents in the Chico Walmart parking lot—to avoid parting with their nonhuman companions. It might strike some as odd or even ridiculous that people sacrificed their own personal comfort for the sake of their animals. However, as interlocutors conveyed to me, it was the only natural decision for people who considered their nonhuman companions to be family. Thus, in researching an environmental disaster as socially and materially destructive as the Camp Fire, kinship classification and understanding of multispecies relationships are particularly important. By only paying attention to humans or nonhumans, we cannot see the complete picture of what and who motivates individuals’ post-disaster choices—choices which subsequently shape the new lives and community borne of this fire.

 

Ridge 2021
The Ridge Lives On, decal stuck to a fence at a lookout point just before you enter the Paradise town limits. Taken November 2021.

My experiences and conversations in the field, as well the work of anthropologist Daniel Ruiz-Serna (2021), led me to explore how ethnographic research concerning post-disaster relationships must include nonhuman animals as well as nonhuman plants—particularly Paradise’s forest system. Before the fire, ponderosa pines, coastal redwoods, and California black oak trees characterized the ridge. The densely wooded area attracted new residents and provided the community with a beautiful, secluded oasis. For many, the combination of their now unrecognizable town and the traumatic memories associated with fleeing the fire troubled the deep connection between themselves and their home environment. Newfound distrust in their surroundings motivated fire victims’ post-disaster decisions, much like their connections with companion animals did, and particularly affected those who returned to live in the burn scar. Just as nonhuman animals are inextricable from their human kin, humans cannot recover independently from their ecological environment. The relationship between residents and their land both before and after the fire affects how they approach and experience recovery. My interlocutors noted that some returning residents still feel unmoored from their sense of place or home environments, even if a love for the region drew them back after the fire. These dilemmas powerfully influenced migratory patterns, namely individuals’ decision to either rebuild or leave Paradise after the fire. Given that, it is essential that we continue examining these fraught relations between people and their environment if we hope to better understand the region’s post-fire future.

While the fire’s burn scar has healed and transformed in a myriad of ways since the Camp Fire, recovery is nonlinear and unpredictable. Annemarie Samuels (2019) calls this the “post-disaster everyday”—a term that describes how recovering from a natural disaster is “a continuous and thoroughly ambiguous process. Grief remains as life goes on, and hope and creativity occupy the same world as poverty and structural social inequalities” (152). While the efforts of grassroots organizations such as the Camp Fire Restoration Project and local community members’ persistent commitment to their town nurture hope for a better future, the effects of loss are still ever-present. Navigating this new reality requires both remembering and forgetting, ultimately finding new ways to invite meaning back into individual and community life. The post-disaster everyday recognizes how this natural disaster divided existence into a temporal dichotomy: life before the fire and life after the fire. In the Camp Fire’s wake, residents continue to navigate social disruption and economic hardships, rebuilding new lives from the remains of what they once knew. They are continuously reimagining what might lie ahead and how to remain connected with their nonhuman families through the unrest and uncertainty, preserving their sense of place in a new ecological landscape.