Jason Saleh: Fire Victims

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Jay Saleh wonders why, when the costs of wildfire are tallied, the homes lost, death and displacement suffered by wildlife are not counted.

The first rains and long shadows have signaled the end of the fire season. Time to inventory what was consumed and what remains and in doing so measure the unmeasurable. By acreage burned, 2020 was the worst year in California’s history. But by some other standards it was not. Counting lives lost, structures burned and insurance dollars to be claimed the news stories have steadily reminded us that this year was not as bad as it could have been.

Well, at least not as bad if you’re a human. When we measure in homes, businesses, grocery stores lost, when we use words like “spared” as fire burns thousands of acres of open space instead of the manmade structures next door, we pass over incomprehensible loss. Does a bear’s den count as a structure? How about a beehive? A bird’s nest is certainly a structure, just like the den, like the hive, that was thoughtfully built for comfort and for safety and is no longer there to come home to. Countless wildlife whose home state is the same as ours are gone, and countless more have no place to seek shelter, no place to find food, no place to rest with their children.

Four million acres scorched to ash, almost totally comprised of the homes, grocery stores, playgrounds, nurseries and lives of the wild animals and trees of California, a state whose flag features the California Grizzly, an animal that Californians drove to extinction because we didn’t think it had a right to be here. We often measure the loss of natural spaces in its impact on ourselves and our children. The metric of personal experience is valuable, but it is also a manifestation of selfishness and blinds us to the biggest of pictures; nature has intrinsic value beyond what it can do for us. It’s time to learn to see the natural world for more than how it makes us feel or the pockets it can line.

We humans have no greater right to occupy this space than the deer, the bears, the coyotes, the snakes, the redwoods. Once we recognize nature’s value beyond our benefit, it will influence our laws, our climate battle, our diet and our every day. And it will change how we measure loss.

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What’s been lost in 2020 is incalculable.

With a Perspective, I’m Jay Saleh.

Jay Saleh is a surgeon at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration. He lives in Menlo Park .