After the Fire…

When I became a councillor, just a little over a year ago now, 8 days into being elected – we had some fairly bad localised flooding in my ward. Poor soil quality mixed with heavy flash flood rainfall events repeatedly over a short amount of time created chaos across Adwick, Woodlands, Highfields & Carcroft. I found out the hard way. I hadn’t even had my induction training at that stage. Thrown into, the literal, deep end.

Flooding in Doncaster, unfortunately, is no longer a shock. But a result of a volatile climate from climate change. I was quoted in the FreePress last May saying “I knew there would be flooding, but I didn’t expect it to happen so early and in the summer.

Now with 2 flooding experiences, & a microburst/mini tornado that damaged over 37 people’s roofs (including my own that we’ve only just found out due to another issue) under my belt in only 14 months – I did not expect to add wildfires onto that list of things I’d be experiencing in my own ward, & surrounding areas, as events resulting from the climate crisis.

You may remember a post I did a few months ago about Community and Practice & the year anniversary of becoming a councillor. I shared how the community – old and young – had come together, very excitedly, to help plant the 20,000 baby trees on Bullcroft Pit Top. It was an immense few weeks, with so many engaged local groups. I even got the kids to name the trees they planted (many named them after TikTok stars, ha!). It was great.

That was one thing that felt really productive.

It was intergenerational. It tapped into a multitude of worries that the residents have. For young people: it was more homes/protection for wildlife and helping against climate change. For older folks it was to help with air pollution & to grow a green forest paradise – it showed that the council et al. were investing in us. It was a thing that spoke to everyone. Which is unusual. It was one thing I was really proud about to have gotten so many people to help, and it was almost effortless (which again, is rare).

Most people enjoy green spaces. Tending to things helps us feel like we’re doing good, learning new stuff and clears the head. I remember in March, with the perfect clear skies, overlooking rich grassland and thinking how it’ll look in 20 years time. A small forest.

Cut to this Monday. When I saw on email & heard on the radio that the Bullcroft Pittop was on fire. I held my breath & hoped it would only damage a small part of the land. Reading the fire service report in the evening, I should have known that 9 fire engines meant it was REALLY bad. But I’m a creature of denial – or more hopefulness in this case. Willing it to not have damaged everything we had done. I went to bed, sweated my ass off in the heat & hoped for the best.

Then a resident forwarded me a link to the Telegraph (of all news sites!) of photos of wildfires across the world, destroying homes, towns, swarths of forests and farmland. And there around number 12/20 was Carcroft. Nearly all of it decimated. Black where it was once green and yellow. A massive swath of land. Gone. Not only our trees, but the homes for the rabbits, the biodiversity that existed already. Gone. In only 2 hours.

That hit me hard. I’m not ashamed to say I cried. I stared at this photo of the damage taken from the sky. Trying to take it in.

We are all connected. And our work together on this site, and knowing it’s importance to the earth as well. Every decision we make, affects a multitude of things, with knock on effects. This fire might have burned something I don’t physically own – but it is a community space, so feels like it’s happened to all of our back yards.

Frustrated I emailed my communities lead, pissed off that I had to find out the extent of damage on a news site & not by anyone in the council or partners. It turned out they didn’t know about this either.

I realize now I wasn’t pissed off at that really; I was just angry and upset at the loss. At the hope I had sat with that the fire would have only hurt some of the area.

My heart ached. Imagining all the hard work of Doncaster Council officers, the team who planted a huge chunk of the trees and lots of local community groups who helped plant these trees and looked after them. This activity and those trees, it had grouped us together. It gave us a shared purpose and belonging.

So this fire felt personal.

When I reached out to friends, feeling a feeling I don’t really think I’ve felt before – one friend in particular : Emma, spoke about how fire is primal. It’s visceral and totally reminds us of our fragility & dependence. I think this was it. I felt so vulnerable and another type of grief i’ve not experienced before directly.

Fire eats everything that gets in its way. It’s quick, it’s silent, it can kill you even if you can’t see it. It destroys lives, leaving nothing in its wake – not even a toothbrush. It is absolutely terrifying. Turning everything into black ash.

The devastation, the fear, the displacement, the uncertainty.

It happens every year, across the globe, and it’s getting worse and scarier as the forests are drier and the winds fiercer.

We weren’t alone in being on fire in Doncaster, or even South Yorkshire. In fact, I think we got “lucky” this fire started on Monday & not on Tuesday as we might not have had access to 9 fire trucks to confine the blaze to the wild land & not spread to the train tracks or very close nearby houses. My sincere gratitude and indebtedness for all our Fire services hard, life threatening, dangerous and hot work in the hottest temps ever in the UK.

I’ve been trying to imagine the stress of adjusting to such drastic and sudden change if fire took down your neighbourhood, never mind having to maintain work and school schedules. It’s a real thing that is happening here, in the UK now. Not just saved for California or Australia, or India, etc.

An amber from a BBQ or cigarette etc can travel 5 mile distances.

We now need fire bans starting strong and early, as this is no longer something out of the ordinary.

I biked it over to the pit top some 36 hours later, once the weather had cooled down.

It was like walking onto a dystopian movie set/scene. Like when Simba returns back to the pride land and everything is dead from fire, in The Lion King.

The place was eerily quiet. No dog walkers. The land under my feet – rock hard, dry and cracked. Even though there were 9 fire trucks worth of water there earlier- everything was dry as a bone. The smell of smokey fire-ness filled the air, and got stronger the closer you got to the main scorched parts. It made my eyes itch.

I walk across the charcoaled blackened land. I hear the loud crunch – like the worst version of frost under foot or the beauty and magic of autumnal crispy fallen leaves, but the polar opposite of that. Each step creating clouds of dust. Like the biggest bottom of a throw-away BBQ. Each bit, I stop walking and I inspect the left over trees and branches in the ground. I have no idea what I’m looking for. Are they still alive?

I kick the ground and see that under the charcoal, that it’s still the yellow grass closest to the ground. I don’t know if this is good, or if it’s still dead? Is the damage more superficial than deep into the ground? Is the land traumatized now? My bright orange socks turn black from the ash.

I see the community grief written on multiple of Facebook posts and groups. It re-happens over and over again as more residents see and discover the damage themselves. I get tagged into them.

I get emails from residents begging me to not let this land become a waste land.

I grew up, until I was 6/7, in Carcroft. i lived most of that time on Repton Road which sits just infront/behind the land. Growing up, the Bullcroft Pit top was in it’s first re-growing stage after decades of mining industry and the waste and damage that came with that.

We often look back to the past with rose-tinted glasses. In the mid 90’s that pittop was indeed flytipped like crazy. Some of my most earliest memories are of us running through long-ish grass and muddy banks – over big pipes, metal structures that stuck out of the ground, barbed wire, sharp things, burnt out car doors or car seats and more. It was a junkyard playground to us, but I imagine an eye sore for residents. But 1 summer, a kid got trapped inside a thrown out freezer/fridge. We weren’t allowed to play up there anymore. And not long after that, we moved.

I can’t let us go back to that status quo. Not after the hope and happiness and fun that the new 20,000 trees brought.

I looked through my Power of Place homework assignments. Re-skimming through my sketchbook and assignment reading to look for clues of what do we do first in the smoke’s wake. There’s gotta be something about starting from literal ashes?

I then get some kind of answer/prompt in week 11’s reading. I realize that the fire has helped the community recognise that this area was/is some of our wealth. And us, community members can steward and grow that wealth. Even in situations where it has been badly degraded, people who are willing to align their efforts toward creating well-being for all, human and nonhuman alike can regenerate it.”

As the reading read, all communities have the potential to develop this wealth because it arises from their nature and from their spirit rather than their affluence.

I loved the bit about it coming from their spirit, and not affulance. The question here that i now have is: how do I access more trees, and build their capability to grow this wealth in ways that benefit everyone and keep it safe for the future?

In the wake of devastation, it is a chance to rethink, reflect, replant, regrow, have more say on the design – and design it regeneratively with the community from the beginning. Add in education. Add in wildflower. Add in more chance for biodiversity than it would have had before. Add more systemic integrity into it all.

This area suffers from flooding. Design it to slow and clean the flow of surface water into Carcorft & Skellow and help prevent flooding by holding rain water on the hillside for much longer than it would take to travel via roadways and drains.

Looking for a silver lining, even in the collective grief we have, I research and reach out to landscape and horticulture designers/experts. They tell me that nutrients released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals, return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility—a benefit that has been exploited by farmers for centuries.

For thousands of years, agricultural development was very slow. One of the earliest agricultural tools was fire. I remember seeing an exhibition, years ago in the USA, about how Native Americans used fire to control the growth of berry-producing plants, which they knew grew quickly after a wildfire.

Several plants actually require fire to move along their life cycles. For example, seeds from many pine tree species are enclosed in pine cones that are covered in pitch, which must be melted by fire for the seeds to be released. Other trees, plants, and flowers, like certain types of lilies, also require fire for seed germination.

How do we regrow and build in climate resilience and education into this process? As things get hotter, and 85% of all wildfires are started by humans. All of this is my/our new challenge.

(Not that I needed any more on my plate than I already had.)

I always think about timing. I knew this would be a wild time to become a councillor: in the middle of a pandemic, into 12 years austerity, a growing cost of living getting more expensive with endless wage stagnation esp within public sector, a care (of all types) crisis… topped off with a climate emergency. But sometimes things work out that we’re in the right place, at the right time for reasons unknown to us. When I started Power of Place, I wasn’t sure where it would lead me. But I’m really happy to have some of the tools to help from this class, to reflect and understand what first steps need to be taken.

The collective challenges we are all facing are monsterous, scary and can at times feel powerless. Where even good work gets destroyed by things out of your hands. But I know that my area, and people in general, are resilient and as we saw from the covid pandemic. Most people will do the right thing to take care of others.

It is, whether we like it or not, a massive wake up call to us all.

I would have given anything for this land to not have burned like this. And so soon after all the 20,000 baby trees. But we will rise, with the earth, from the ashes like phoenix – and take stock of what we have, what needs to change, and regrow back, with more green play, more community collectivism, more climate resilience and integrity and activism built into our communities and assets.

After the Fire we will make time to reflect and grieve, but to also regrow, together. Thrive with integrity, to create more wholeness.

Published by smizz

Artist → Re-evaluating life→ Rad Oncology graduate + public health worker→ @lab4living PhD-er → Want 2 make a positive difference → Rule-Breaker → LIVE DRAWZ! → councillor! → Loves cities → rides fixie → adventures → wanna be ramen master → <3 Tokyo + NYC

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