“Nothin’ Left to Burn”: California Wildfire and the Metaphor of Human Choice

For days, weeks, or even months after a fire, ash and smoke linger visibly in the atmosphere, purveying the haunting scent of autumn to the denizens of this vacuous land. The effects of our human actions linger, too, like so much smoke, whether we are aware of or care for their damage or not.

These vapors of deadened leaves and thick woodsmoke temporarily veil the fixture that is that unrelenting sun, as ash from low-hanging clouds of smoke fall in fragile, soft flakes like snow, but these false disparities are hardly welcome ones.

Chemical Drop, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016


Like any parent, Mother Nature’s great patience sometimes abates, punishing even our most minimally careless actions with irrevocably-damaging, fearfully-profound responses — the proverbial straw thus breaking the camel’s back, and calling upon the resulting denial of service as hope for change.

Locals of this area are hardly passive about this element of California’s weather: there is a mutual understanding visible within the fear that the next fire may be just close enough to their own home to cause for an evacuation — perhaps just close enough to fondle the property lines of the homes in which they house their memories. California’s drought (combined with the fact that wildfire is, of course, an integral part of the ecological structure of the region in some ways) makes for a perfect firestorm.

During these troubling times, the murmurings which circulate in small factions of wary community members here are statically similar, and are always expressed in somber consensus: there’s simply “nothin’ left to burn“. Blackened hills in recovery all-too-often play host, their charred remains a framed horizon over which smoke can be seen billowing from their neighbors. The smoke slows everything here (traffic and conversation included), and within a few days, a new fire will overtake the mountains and turn the horizon into a nihilistic minimalist’s photographic dream-come-true.


On The Prairie, Yolo County, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
On The Prairie, Yolo County, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

The ominous plumes of smoke rising from California’s iconic hills provide scale to its expansive, open skies: standing next to these wonders begotten of nature itself, we understand little more than the general concept that ‘we are small’. Where in New England and communities like it, trees and canopies overtake the skyline almost everywhere you look, these vast, open plains, parched hills, and cloudless skies are, in their magnitude, often difficult to grasp due to such conditions and the lack therein of comparative microcosm.

In the academic world, we are taught that each action is to bear an equal and opposite reaction both literally and figuratively, and the natural world is no different. Because that which some find “insignificant” — the disposal of a cigarette butt, coals left in an all-but-dead campfire — is frequently met with enormity in reaction by the earth under such a firestorm of circumstance, and here we are provided further insight into the lesson the earth conveys in so doing.

Nature lends to us through these disasters, leading by example as a teacher, indicating that the significance of our interactions with the land in any capacity, great or small, should be borne only with the awareness and understanding of the great responsibility necessary to respect its resources. Viewing that concept through an academic and spiritual lens lends even further insight into the metaphoric qualities of these conditions, and there we can make several observations.

Plume II, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Plume II, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In its destruction, a wildfire will have amounted to magnificent and horrific visual effect, illustrative of how a mistake, bad judgement, or careless action at the hands of a single human being can amount to more damage than one person could ever hope to rectify alone.

This secures the understanding not only how much human beings of capable of, but the potential therein to cause both disaster and balance. As communities gather ever-closer in the wake of disaster with hopes for safety in numbers, such activity begets the establishment of communal efforts aimed at the rectification of the careless mistakes of others — mistakes which so frequently cause these fires.

But the enormity of natural reactions to human stimuli is offset by the individual’s insignificance often felt upon staring at an unimaginably large plume of smoke, rising into the comparatively small atmosphere, reaching volume greater than the mountain from whence it came — presumptuously, we realize that this itself is certainly larger than a human being could ever be. But as a product of nature ourselves, we equally and oppositely reach its capacities for destruction — we have begotten this destruction, this response elicited by our action, and as such, we are afforded yet another shift in perspective…

These fires are perfect metaphor for human choice: that human beings must consider the consequences of their actions both in feeling and in application prior to acting upon their impulses and wonts — even the simplest ones.

Our actions taken in love, in war, and in every moment between require the utmost attention to detail in our self-awareness not because we should strive for an flawless, emotionless existence, but because the world requires little of us as a species apart from our implied task of taking care of one another.

Crews Assemble, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Crews Assemble, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016


Forever, communities of all sizes will take upon themselves the task of repairing the losses and damages to one another accrued through human error or borne of human choice all in the same manner.

Thereby, to temper one’s emotional response wisely is to do great service to humankind — temperance which is never fully achievable but something to which humanity is, as a unit, capable of working towards for the betterment of all its members and all functions thereof. Self awareness, altruism, and empathy are the only cure to the inherent tendency of human beings to simply be human… that is, to err.


Plume Rises, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Plume Rises, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016


Within each of us, the spark exists to act with minimal to no consideration for others, no matter the fortitude of our sense of personal decorum, and certain situations, people, and conditions are tempting tinderboxes. Metaphorically, a dropped cigarette butt, an improperly-extinguished, legal campsite, or an illegal campfire all represent choices made with either ignorance, thoughtlessness, or with great inconsideration to potential eventualities. In each hypothetical circumstance, the reasoning for having taken the action, or the corresponding explanation thereof is irrelevant, because the outcome — and corresponding chain reaction — is the same. But the forest has no tongue, as so astutely noted by the Lorax, and, like some strong human pride, it cannot ask for help when it has been burned.

Often, even when it is felt that there is nothing left to burn, the actions of one match, lit under ill-advised emotion, poor consideration, or both, can billow into a form immediately requiring the care and devotion of many others to heal what has been damaged, and in many cases, to completely rebuild all prior establishments — even those most inherent to our humanity.The smallest inconsideration can result in great abuse of that which is good in the world. Each human action, no matter how small, bears consequence, and must be treated as such: we must, with the mercenary dedication of soldiers, realize this and task ourselves with the vigilance required for commitment to this effort.

It is the responsibility of humanity not only to consider one another, but to never lose sight of this even in the face of personal challenge just as it is the responsibility of humanity to care for the environment we possess… Because, in truth and actuality, eventually that environment will deliver well-timed, forceful, and poignant reminders of the fact that we do not possess it at all: it possesses us, and there is always more to burn.


Published by

Caroline C. Evans Abbott

I am a rising Master of Research (M.Res) English Literature candidate at the University of Glasgow, incoming MFA Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and a recent Honors Program graduate of the B.A. Studio Art program at Albertus Magnus College (2015). From 2015 - 2016, I served as an English, Writing, and Creative Enrichment Tutor for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Reservation in Brooks, California, and from 2014 - 2015 as a Writing Associate (Tutor) in the Albertus Magnus College Writing Center. I am based in West London.

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