Days of Awe

In Review: The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History

While a number of books have been published on fire recently, Manjula Martin’s The Last Fire Season is one of the few books written from the perspective of someone who has been affected by wildfire. John Vaillant’s recent bestseller Fire Season, for example, is told from a historical perspective, and situates wildfire more broadly within the climate-change debate. Martin, on the other hand, puts wildfire squarely in the middle of her life, in the wildland-urban interface of Sonoma County, California, where her home is at high risk of burning.

photo of a conflagration

A smoke plume from the 2017 Canyon Fire in Los Angeles. In her book, Manjula Martin pulls in memories of her childhood growing up in Sonoma County, California, along with interviews and descriptions of tours she undertakes after 2020 to understand what it means to live with fire. Photo by /\ltus / Flickr.

Martin frames this memoir within four months in 2020, beginning in August, when a dry lightning storm ignites several fires across the landscape not far from their home. Burnt bay leaves and ash fall from the sky into her garden, and her community is placed on evacuation alert. Rather than wait for an evacuation order, though, she and her husband pack up their essential belongings, including letters her husband’s great-grandfather received from his family in Ukraine after he immigrated to Chicago in the 1910s, and head out. “We coiled the hose and didn’t look back,” she writes. “Max steered us south toward the thick sky, and the combusted remnants of the natural world fell on us from above like an early, phantom rain.”

This intimate writing, describing the personal impact of a wildfire, is where the memoir shines. While some of the book covers similar territory as others — the increasing extent and severity of wildfire, the loss of Indigenous burning practices that have made the forest more susceptible to flames, and the early government imperative to have all fires out by 10 am the next day — Martin moves on to address aspects of natural disasters that other authors haven’t. These include environmental justice issues, such as where people go when their houses are destroyed and they don’t have the finances to rebuild. “Wildfires had made the housing situation worse,” she writes. “They had destroyed affordable neighborhoods and trailer parks. High construction costs meant that rebuilt homes were more likely to be occupied by wealthy people.”

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Her partner, Max, works for a labor organizing nonprofit, so he understands the precarious housing and work situations migrant workers, in particular, endure: “poverty, dangerous conditions, and abuse.” Martin also includes Indigenous perspectives, particularly the idea that “good fire” is a cultural and ethical practice of land stewardship, while acknowledging her privilege as a White colonizer living on land “stolen for us.”

Martin’s personal struggle with illness also plays a role in her response to wildfire. Years ago, an IUD implanted itself in the lining of her uterus, only part of which could be removed. Complications after a surgical attempt to remove it led to a hysterectomy and chronic pain. She likens her pain to wildfire, flaring up and then dying down, something that’s rooted deep inside of her: “Like fire, pain seemed alive. It devoured and traveled. It evaded description. It was formless yet ever present.”

Throughout the book, Martin deftly weaves her narrative between wildfire and smoke, work in the garden, chronic pain, and the principles of environmental and social justice. She pulls in memories of her childhood growing up in the area, along with interviews and descriptions of tours she undertakes after 2020 to understand how communities and people were affected by the fires, and what it means to live with fire.

She describes, for example, an episode in which smoke blocks the sun for days at a time: “The slow, turbid terror that suffused my body when the sky disappeared was something new. It was a deep body fear, an animal truth … I realized I was living inside endless days of awe, with combusted pieces of trees and animals and people falling through the air outside, where I no longer went.”

But Martin also explores how fire can sometimes be a positive force. She participates in a controlled burn and notes that, “Fire is exuberant. It’s joyous. It dances. I can see why people joke that all firefighters are secret pyros. It’s so much fun.”

While she and her partner discuss moving, they ultimately stay, rooted in the landscape. They come to accept that climate change isn’t something that’s happening to someone else, that they live in the middle of a place affected by it. “To truly love a place, a person needed to take responsibility for her involvement with it, not only feel feelings,” she writes.

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