At CityLab, Henry Wismayer reports on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The worst fire disaster in London since the Blitz during World War II, the blaze claimed 80 lives. To outsiders, England may appear to be a “a paragon of functioning multiculturalism,” but the Grenfell fire has become the country’s “Katrina moment” — the catastrophic event which exposes society’s egregious treatment of and contempt for its poor.
Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.
In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”
She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.
It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.
She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.
At Garden & Gun, Justin Heckert tells the surreal story of the worst fire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 100 years. The fire, which was started by kids playing with matches, began small and crept across the Smokey Mountains to threaten people as they slept in their beds. The fire took the lives of 14 people, displaced 14,000 more, and consumed 2000 properties in under 24 hours.
The fire burned sideways in the cold, red dark. When it found the little cabin on the mountain, it broke through the front window first, then curled up the wall, and eventually ate the cedar hope chest made from a tree on Linda Morrow’s family’s farm in Sebastopol, Mississippi. The sound of breaking glass startled her awake: her husband’s suncatcher, scraps of stained glass strung on fishing line, knocked off a window by the fire and onto the floor.
As she scrambled past them, those trees were on fire, crackling and groaning, the noises of being eaten alive. The fire reached them on the ground in leaf litter and on the wind as embers, the pines and spruces and hemlocks, taking them—the forest of her inspiration dying in luminosity.
She wore a cotton nightgown that flayed from her in wind gusts that topped 80 m.p.h. She put her hands above her head, holding her long red hair back, praying it wouldn’t catch fire, too. Everything else was on fire. The grass and the ground. Embers swirled through the air. More flames bent toward her as reflections on the creek. Behind her, she could see that the roof of the cabin and all the stacked wood on the bridge for the winter were burning.
This essay first appeared in Crazyhorse, a long-running biannual print journal of fiction, poetry, and formally inventive nonfiction, published by the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Our thanks to Miles Wilson and the Crazyhorse staff for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.
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When fire started up out of the canyon, they were already dead. Still, for minutes, they kept cutting fireline, Forest Service hotshots and smokejumpers working a halfass fire in the scrub oak and piñon country of north-central Colorado. They cut as though there were a future. But when fire boiled out of the canyon up Storm King Mountain at twenty miles per hour, fast enough to catch birds in flight, there was only the present. And then not that. It came with 250-foot flame lengths and the 1,800 degree heat of a crematorium.
In spikes, on a springy track, a world-class sprinter can reach twenty miles per hour in ideal conditions over one hundred yards. Sapped from hours of cutting line, churning uphill in boots and fire gear over rough ground at 7,000 feet, one hundred yards from the sanctuary of the ridgeline, it was not a winnable race for the premier firefighters the Forest Service puts on the line in the West every summer.
Forty years ago, on a fire called Schoolhouse in the San Bernardino National Forest of California, I peeled back with the rest of the Dalton Hotshots into the black–hot ash and brush embers — as fire came up the ridge like a freight train, incinerating all carbon-based life where we had been cutting line moments before.
Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.
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As a teenager growing up in Southern California, I remember looking up one day and seeing a fine white powder falling from the sky. It was the middle of summer, and for a moment I wondered, absurdly, if it was snowing. The flakes crumbled between my fingers and left streaks like flour on my clothes. They were ash.
Every summer, swaths of California burn. Grass, brush, trees and even houses go up in smoke. In the worst years, they drift back to earth in the form of a thin gray coating on windshields and awnings. On local TV, between late-night car chases and tanned weather reporters who know every synonym for sunny, I remember images of hillsides that glowed orange and black.
It’s fire season again. So far, nearly 30 major wildfires have torn through 12 states. As this year’s blazes seem to reach their yearly peak, here are four stories about risk and resilience in the face of fire. They’re a glimpse into the lives of those who fight fires, those who flee them, and those who rebuild, literally, from the ashes. Read more…