The view from our deck in the early morning of October 8, 2017. My first view of the firestorm
“Charismatic authority is a concept of leadership developed by the German sociologist Max Weber. It involves a type of organization or a type of leadership in which authority derives from the charisma of the leader. This stands in contrast to two other types of authority: legal authority and traditional authority.”
from the Wikipedia entry on Max Weber’s concept of charisma. George P. Hansen’s work on the Trickster and the Paranormal expands upon the association between charismatic authority and paranormal events.
A recent Arnemancy podcast put me in mind of a story I was told by someone about their experience of the 2017 firestorms in Sonoma and Napa counties. Erik Arneson and Andrew B. Watt were discussing what skills and knowledge would be most useful to have in the event of the collapse of civilization &/or the apocalypse. One skill they both agreed was of crucial importance was being able to manage groups of people, communicate with them, and persuade them to take certain courses of action.
At first glance this may seem like the most nebulous of skills, much less practical than knowing how to construct a shelter or butcher an animal. However, a story I heard from a person involved in the 2017 firestorms argues the exact opposite, and sheds light on the role of charisma in dire situations.
The woman who told me this story lives with her husband in the Atlas mountains, where they own an agricultural concern. Their property is up in the mountains looking over the Napa Valley, accessed by steep, winding, narrow roads. Given their remote location, they have worked with CalFire in order to become certified as a satellite fire fighting station. As she explained it to me, they have knowledge of the surrounding terrain, defensible space, heavy earth moving equipment, access to water, generators, and communications equipment with access to emergency channels and maps of private and fire roads.
on Highway 12 heading east towards Fairfield, with ash on the windshield
Fires broke out in many counties surrounding the Napa valley on October 8, 2017 – by sunrise there were huge firestorms burning on the east and west sides of the valley. I drove over highway 12 to Fairfield that morning, the Atlas Fire looked like a nuclear explosion and was enormous even though I was viewing it from miles away.
My informant and her husband sprang into action coordinating with fire fighting crews in the area. After a day or so, it seemed prudent for a number of homes in the area of their location to evacuate. This woman, as someone very familiar with the terrain and roads, was tasked with leading a convoy of vehicles down the mountain to the floor of the valley, where no fires raged.
I can’t convey how disorienting the smoke and fires made navigating. I’d lived in the city of Napa for over two years at that time, and became completely disoriented driving down one of the main streets in town in broad daylight during the firestorms because the thick smoke blocked the view of the mountains, usually so imposing. And that was in a rational, gridded city street on the flats. On a twisting, contour following mountain road with fire all around, and smoke where there’s no fire – it’s a labyrinth.
Looking towards the Atlas Mountains from highway 29 at 221
The convoy started it’s trek. The woman leading the convoy knew the roads and was in close contact with emergency agencies as to which roads were open, which were in active firestorm, which were blocked, etc. This information was vital as looking down the mountain you could see fires raging to the north, the south, east, and west.
They were maybe a quarter of the way through their trip when one of the cars stopped and it’s driver got out. He came up to the leader and told her that everything they could see was burning, and he could see the lights of Napa in the valley and everything between them and that city was on fire. He was sure that she was leading them straight into the firestorm and he wanted to turn around.
At the shopping center on Soscol at Imola. The businesses had power but worried employees and shoppers stood in the parking lot and watched the fires advance toward their homes
This would have been one conversation if the convoy was traveling through wide, well maintained streets with plenty of spots to turn around. But these roads are narrow, steep, twisty, ill-maintained, with precipitous drop offs. There was no way to turn him around, or let him go his own way. His car was towards the front, all the vehicles were full of people, if he refused to proceed everyone behind him would be trapped as well.
This woman needed to stand there with the world burning around them and convince this guy that she knew what she was doing. And she didn’t have much time to argue, as the fires raged across the landscape, possibly blocking their route of escape as time went on.
Obviously she pulled it off, because she is alive to tell the tale. But this points out that you may know all there is to know, you may have skills up the wazoo, but in many emergency situations, your life and the lives of those around you may depend much more on your ability to lead, convince, and manage other people.
Andrew B. Watt:
Reverend Erik Arneson:
On twitter @arnemancy