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'The Last Fire Season' describes what it was like to live through Calif.'s wildfires


Manjula Martin woke before dawn one morning in mid-Aug. 2020 in her home in West Sonoma County, Calif., to a dry lightning storm.

"Above the redwoods fathomless clouds lingered like silence," she writes. "From inside them the furious sky hurled its energy at millions of acres of dry, deep wood." The forest surrounding her was all-too ready to burn.

Martin (no relation to this reviewer) had lived through many prior Northern California fire seasons — she grew up in Santa Cruz, had lived in the San Francisco Bay area on and off throughout her adulthood, and had settled in her current home with her partner in 2017. But she knew immediately that this lightning storm represented an unprecedented danger, because its strikes hit "a landscape that was overgrown, dry from drought, and experiencing record-breaking heat and high winds." She and Max began to pack, preparing to evacuate.

Thus begins The Last Fire Season, a melding of memoir, natural history, and reportage that traces four months in 2020 when wildfires in California broke records, burning more than 4 million acres. Those lightning strikes — more than 10,000 of them — were responsible for 650 wildfires large enough to be named; one such fire, the August Complex, became the first recorded "gigafire" in the state's modern history, spanning more than a million acres. Martin lived a few miles south of the Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex, in a former logging camp and vacation resort that was a "fire trap" filled with wooden houses.

A former managing editor of the literary magazine Zoetrope, Martin records what it was like to live through and alongside these conflagrations with a lyrical attention to detail and through a deeply personal lens. The Last Fire Season unfolds in four major sections, one for each month of August through November 2020, tracing the movement of wildfires, placing them in ecological and human history, and grappling with their repercussions. As she recounts months spent dodging and being followed by wildfires, months when the siren on her local firehouse blared almost daily and when smoke overwhelmed her senses, Martin reflects on what it means to make one's home in a place that is destined to burn, and to live "inside a damaged body on a damaged planet."

Indeed, The Last Fire Season is just as much about learning to live with chronic pain as with fire. Martin settled in the house in the forest when she was amid a cascading series of "atypical" medical crises — during the removal of her IUD, one of the device's small plastic arms became lodged in the wall of her uterus, leading to infection and eventually necessitating a hysterectomy. As her scars healed but her pain did not, she tended a flower and fruit tree garden in her yard, casting it as her "companion in damage and renewal."

Martin had learned from her father, an organic horticulturalist, that while we typically think of gardening as creation, it is in fact an act of human intervention — pruning a tree, for instance, allows a gardener to manipulate how it grows. In intervening on the land while living in a body that had itself been intervened on, she developed an understanding of the physical world "in terms beyond well or unwell, fertile or sterile, whole or broken."

This perspective melds with Martin's nuanced way of seeing fire as both something to fear and as a necessary element in the evolution of the Earth's ecosystems. As she acknowledges, the Native peoples who first inhabited the land we now know as California had long appreciated the essential power of fire, using it as both a land management tool and an aspect of spiritual practice. When colonists displaced California's Indigenous peoples and sought to eliminate their ways of life, they also "erased or pushed underground millennia of traditional ecological knowledge," including how to wield fire for land protection and renewal. Using prescribed burns — or "good fire" — to clear hazardous fuel like dry underbrush is in fact key to preventing and limiting out-of-control wildfires like the ones that had Martin in a state of anxiety throughout the late summer and fall of 2020.

While The Last Fire Season is organized around those tense months when bad fire threatened the garden and forest that Martin had grown so attached to, some of the most effective passages come when she pulls back from the stream of her daily life to weave in research or reporting. Flash-forwards bring the reader along to observe a cross-cultural exchange of ecological knowledge between a group of Lake County Pomo Indians and Indigenous Mexican people, to encounter the aftermath of the 2020 fires in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and to witness a prescribed burn on an oak woodland near Martin's home. These chapters both deepen the engagement with the question of how to live with fire and offer needed texture to a narrative that at times gets tedious in its granular observance of the present and the personal.

Zooming out also helps Martin come to terms with staying in Northern California amid climate change and the megafire era, and with her injuries and pain. For much of the book, these threads of inquiry proceed in parallel; when they synthesize, they truly sing. "Both manners of living with uncontrollable events required me to let go of any sense of an ending," Martin writes. The Last Fire Season eschews a redemptive arc in favor of witnessing and sitting with the discomfort of reality, with understanding that, as Martin puts it, "what happened to the land would happen to me."

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin