Pearl River Almost everyone with an ounce of common sense knows that the climate is changing. We might be tired of talking about it and discouraged at how little is being done about it, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s jumping out at us everywhere we look around, even in places we might least suspect to find more evidence of the obvious.
Along the Gulf Coast, between the rivers and lakes, we worry about water and hurricanes and how to squeeze our living spaces into the gaps of high ground and behind natural and artificial barriers. Tornadoes are something that people in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the like face. For decades that seemed to be the reality, but now we have tornado warnings and even actual tornadoes that sneak into the city limits of New Orleans to add more injury to daily insults.
The same could be said about fire. California seems beset by cataclysmic fires, wiping out whole communities and generating smoke sufficient to close airports. Dry conditions and light snowfall have set Montana on fire off and on for years. New Mexico was burning this spring.
With so much water, water everywhere, many along the Gulf where we have more wetlands than anywhere else in the country are often cavalier about fires. Why worry? What are the chances?
That was then. This is now.
The bayou near the Pearl River border between Louisiana and Mississippi, where I canoe regularly, is filled with marsh. Alligators, ducks, nutria, heron, red-wing blackbirds, possums, owls, and more are my regular companions as I paddle alongside them. I put my canoe into the water from a dock that runs 50 yards from mostly dry ground to the water. As the tides and winds blow in and out, water will fill the entire marsh one minute and leave it two feet lower in the bayou hours later, even as the muck of the marsh stays wet. A wrong step on a tuft of saw-grass can sink your waders a foot down within seconds, if you’re not careful.
Careful is the key word though, because indifference to the danger of fires, even in these wetlands can burn through acres of pine, cypress, and oak in no time. For the second time in three years that I have paddled this bayou, careless fires have burned acres. One time some fellows lost control of a fire as they were burning stumps behind their house. Recently, a bonfire escaped a party not far down the marsh, and it quickly spread through the tops of the dry saw-grass and lit acres of the pine forest on fire making a blaze that kept smoldering for days as it burned the deep pine needles and downed limbs that cushioned the understory. No houses were burned thanks to the volunteer fire company, but the gangplank raised about the marsh leading to the dock collapsed in flames in several places. It will be a while before I’ll be able to paddle again.
The marsh and the forest are lucky. They will come back at least this time. Docks and raised walkways will be strengthened and rebuilt. Will wetlands and marsh people along the bayous reckon with the new reality that it’s not just water, but fire that also requires care and preparation? We may be certain about the new realities and dangers that come with climate change, but I’m less certain that I know for sure that people along the Gulf Coast will adapt to protect the marsh, plants, and wildlife to the fires that come with change this time.