When Wildfires Move Us

Feeling the impact of wildfire enables us to move toward action

Em Wright
4 min readSep 23, 2020
Photo: Joanne Francis

As the wildfires rage in the Western U.S., I’ve watched from my parents’ home in Wisconsin while my community in Seattle, Washington struggled with the twofold setback of social and environmental isolation and health hazard from the pandemic and wildfire smoke. I’ve watched, alongside the rest of the world, as ecosystems that have grown and flourished for decades if not centuries are ravaged in a matter of hours. I’ve observed with solemnity people losing their homes and people without homes dealing with toxic air. Throughout all of this, I have felt a fraction of the emotions and physical sensations that I would have expected. I identify strongly with the land, nature, and other beings. I also consider myself in touch with my emotions and embodied sensations. And yet, I was not feeling the grief in my body — the sinking stomach, the contraction in my chest, the furrowing of my brow. I felt disoriented — why can’t I feel?

Then, I cracked. It was this past Sunday morning. I was cooking breakfast and I opened up my podcast app to listen to the news — a ritual I thoroughly enjoy. Democracy Now! didn’t have a new episode, so I checked The Daily and read the first few words of the latest episode’s title: “Special Episode: An Obituary for…”. I figured it was about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had passed two days prior, and I clicked play, looking forward to reflecting on her life and contributions to our country. As the episode began, it quickly became clear that the topic was different than I had expected. The guest host Bianca Giaever and interviewee Terry Tempest Williams were talking about the wildfires on the West Coast, so I went back to check the full title: “Special Episode: An Obituary for the Land.” Ah, I thought, that makes sense. Well, maybe this will be helpful too — another thing to grieve.

I started listening casually, stirring my oats over the stove. As the conversation continued, I soon became captivated by Terry’s story of surviving a forest fire in Glacier National Park. Then I heard her say this about the current wildfires:

“the energy that is being expended right now…it’s a wonder we’re not all in bed because we are not neutral bodies. We are feeling that. I just went outside [of my house in Utah] and all of the patio furniture is covered in ash…that ash — those are trees. Those are bodies. That’s fur. That’s feathers. It’s everything, and we’re covered in it. And anyone who says they’re fine, they are dead to this world that is really dying.”*

I felt the shockwave of those words wash over me. They halted me. It wasn’t that I resonated with being dead to this world, in fact I felt quite the opposite. Rather, what struck me was her articulation of the immense energy that is moving and shifting during these wildfires, and our collective numbing to that truth. Wildfires are major energetic processes where massive amounts of biomass are consumed and transmuted into gases.

To get a sense of the energetics, consider this: How does the act of lighting a single candle shift the mood in a room? Perhaps it brings a sense of calm, a feeling of cleansing, or a sense of excitement. Whatever that mood shift is, notice how it occurs simply by burning a small wick in a candle. Now consider setting ablaze thousands of football fields of living, breathing forests and consider the mood shift from that experience. Breathe and sit with that.

That is what cracked me open. More than the headlines, Instagram posts, and news stories, the naming of the energetic exchange was what did it for me. It gave me permission to be deeply impacted by the wildfires while I am geographically far from them. It created space for me to feel all the wildly moving energy, and in this space, I realized I had been denying myself this experience. And so I wept. I wept for the loss of habitat and the lives of plants, animals, mycelium, humans. I wept for the release of more carbon into the maxed out atmosphere and the unbelievable denial of climate collapse by leaders and fellow residents alike. I wept for the suffering that is occurring and will continue occurring before we arrive at the threshold of transformative societal change that will bring us into a sustainable balance.

In the relieved exhaustion that comes after a full-body cry, I sit with questions: How do we stay connected to the energetic experience of climate collapse? How do we open ourselves up to the uncomfortable, perhaps painful, sensations of grief and rage? How do we metabolize those emotions so we can use that energy to heal, act, and adapt? These questions are what stands between us and our future. We must be able to feel our interconnectedness to landscapes and kin on this planet because feeling is the only thing that will actually move us to change. Without it, we become stuck in numbness, denial, fear, and shame — we become dead to the world when what the world most needs of us is to feel our aliveness.

*Some filler words (e.g., “I mean”) were removed from the quoted text for clarity. See the full transcript here.



Em Wright

(they/them) educator | designer | somatic coach | climate x healing | emwright.co | founder webecome.us