The New York Times caught the attention of many West Coast residents earlier this week when it ran a story about recent efforts to contain wildfires, one of which had grown “larger than Rhode Island.”
While wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem, climate change has most assuredly contributed to their intensity in recent years. One Arizona State University professor who has found this especially disconcerting is young adult novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Rhodes grew up in Pittsburgh, where interactions with nature were scarce. As an adult, she grew to love the West Coast landscape, where she was finally able to engage in outdoor activities like hiking and swimming, and was adamant that her children did, too.
In her most recent novel, “Paradise on Fire,” Rhodes tells the story of a group of city kids who find themselves face to face with a raging wildfire on their first excursion into the wilderness. Together, they use both their natural abilities and the skills they have only just learned to survive.
The story highlights the importance of teaching younger generations about the natural world — not only how to live in it, but how to care for it.
In a recent conversation, Rhodes shared more with ASU News about the inspiration behind the book, and Erinanne Saffell, a senior lecturer in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who was recently appointed Arizona’s state climatologist, provided context for its driving action.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: What inspired this novel?
Rhodes: When I was in Wyoming for a writer’s conference, there was a group of elementary students from D.C. there participating in a wilderness adventure program that takes city kids out West to learn about nature and cultivate an appreciation for it. In terms of race equity, a lot of city kids have less green in their community, fewer playgrounds and trees. For kids like me, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I didn’t know anything about nature. I didn’t even know how to swim. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the West, and I thought, ‘This is my landscape.’ I never knew there were such beautiful spaces with communities living with abundant nature surrounding them. So that was something I wanted to write about, to show that there are kids who are not being exposed to nature but they need to be. Because if you never see it, how can you learn to care for our planet?
Q: Ms. Saffell, as someone who is also tasked with educating folks about climate and weather, what is your take on that? How important is it to be educating younger generations about nature and climate?
Saffell: When I talk about climate and climate change, I try to help people to understand what climate actually is and to understand the natural climate processes, like how air temperature increases throughout the day. Because if we can understand the basic processes, then we can understand what's changing those processes, and that’s really important in finding solutions. In my experience, younger generations are always very excited to learn about what's going on around them, like why it’s raining or what kind of cloud that is. And that’s exciting for me, because it’s learning about these kinds of basic processes and capturing their interest at a young age that makes the difference in whether they end up being the ones who bring us future solutions.
Q: Professor Rhodes, why did you focus on wildfires, specifically, as opposed to hurricanes or other extreme weather events? Do you have any personal experience with wildfires that you drew from?
Rhodes: I lived in Arizona for more than 30 years, and I’ve also lived in California and Washington state. So I’ve been a West Coast girl my whole adult life, and wildfires are part of West Coast life. With this book, I wanted to write about how, with climate change and global warming, the fire season is getting worse and worse. It’s destroying trees’ ability to remove CO2 from the air, causing pollution that causes adverse health effects, there are fewer habitats for animals and it’s contributing to the housing crisis, not to mention loss of human life. So it really is a serious threat to the West Coast.
Q: What are all these recent wildfires indicative of?
Saffell: Wildfires are a part of ecosystems. And when you're in a desert environment, that's part of the ecosystem. So we need to understand that it's a normal, natural thing first, but it can be exacerbated. What we're seeing happening with wildfires now is that, because we're also dealing with a drought and increasing temperatures, the atmosphere is trying to pull moisture from wherever it can. So it pulls it out of our soil and out of our plants. Our plants become desiccated. They become susceptible to invasive species and then they become susceptible to wildland fires. So it becomes a consequence of climate change when you look at it in that way. So it's a normal, natural process, but are we seeing an exacerbation of that? We absolutely are.
Q: Professor Rhodes, what do you hope kids who read your book get out of it?
Rhodes: I’m always writing for kids to feel empowered. I want them to know that their street smarts, wilderness smarts and spiritual smarts can help them overcome hardship and disaster. A common theme I write about is resilience. The characters in this book aren’t just passive victims where climate change is just happening to them. They become empowered to survive, and as they survive, they become empowered to make change. I have great faith in this younger generation that they may in fact find the technological, scientific ways to help support a more stable climate for Earth. We haven’t done all that we can do as adults, so my thought is to educate young people because it is something they are definitely going to have to address as adults. I believe they’re going to be like Addy (the main character in “Paradise on Fire”) and think of innovations that might in fact keep life sustainable for everyone.
Top photo: California wildfires seen from a beach. Photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images