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I’m a parent of a young child.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, USA. The wildfires here in our state right now are devastating.  Below is my story.

There are multiple wildfires currently burning.  The “Camp Fire” in Northern California has been by far the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded California history, and maybe US history.  Just from this one fire, currently over 70 people are dead and over 1000 are missing.  These numbers have been rising every day.  Over 12,000 structures have been destroyed, and 149,000 acres of land has burned.  An entire town of 29,000 people burned completely to the ground.  Tens of thousands of people have lost their homes and many are living in unhealthy refugee camps.  Millions of people are living in air that is hazardous to our health.   Over a million and a half acres have been burned from wildfires this year in California, the largest amount of burned acreage recorded in one year.  2018 is the most destructive wildfire season on record in California.  This is all because of climate change caused by the fossil fuel industry.

I’ll tell my story.  There are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, that are worse than mine.  But people are not saying enough and we have to talk about the effects of climate change, so I'll share mine.  

The "Camp Fire” (as it’s been named) started on Thursday, November 8, 2018.  Even though the fire is over 150 miles from where I live, thick smoke has covered where I live for over a week.  Of course this intensity and size of wildfire at this time of year is caused by climate change.  But even the fact that smoke from so far away settled for so long in the Bay Area seems to also be related to climate change.  Usually November would be a time for cool days and cool nights.  But with climate change, the nights have been cold and the days much warmer (sometimes a 30-40 F degree difference).  From what I’ve read, it is partly this big difference in day and night temperatures that caused the smoke from the fire to get stuck close to the ground in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

After the smoke arrived, my family tried to go ahead with our lives as planned.  Except that we had to stay indoors.  This became very hard for my child.  We couldn’t play outside—the air was too contaminated.  

Other issues started appearing.  My child became very irritable.  He was discharging a lot, but really struggling, in an unusual way, to get his attention out and enjoy things he usually enjoys.  He lost his appetite, stopped eating very much at all.  He became lethargic and sleepy.  He and I both started getting headaches and he started feeling dizzy.  We both had upper respiratory congestion and coughs.  My eyes were burning, my nose bled and my chest hurt.  I started breaking out in rashes and having trouble concentrating. Some of these things were hard to notice as they were happening.  Others I noticed but didn’t necessarily attribute to the smoke.  Most people around me were just trying to get through.  It was hard for all of us to not be numb.  It was hard to face what was actually happening.  People would complain a little, like they do sometimes about the weather, but mostly not make too big a deal about it.  Or make jokes about apocalypse or Armageddon, but then move on.  People seemed terrified, numb and feeling powerless.  I didn’t have the attention or enough perspective to think about it or contradict it well.  Everyone seemed to be hoping the fires would get put out soon, that rain would come, that the winds would shift, that there would be some relief.  Everyone seemed to feel like we shouldn’t make a fuss because other people had it worse.  Our homes weren’t burning.  

Staying inside stopped being enough protection.  The smoke eventually, over time, started coming into our house more and more.  We could smell it and the air felt thicker.  It was getting harder and harder.  We were trying to handle it and make life work.  We got respirators.  We started wearing them in the house at times.  Stores started running out of respirators.  People started making plans to buy respirators in the future to have on hand for future fires.  We bought an air purifier online, but it was going to take days for it to be delivered.  Local schools started closing.  I eventually realized that there was a good chance that most or all of the symptoms my son and I were having were probably related to the smoke.  Of course, smoke is bad for people to breathe.  In this case, the smoke is not just from wood burning.  Many different kinds of human-built infrastructure has burned, releasing all kinds of toxins.

After a week of living in smoke, on Thursday night, November 15, I realized that we needed to evacuate ourselves out of the smoke. By then, thick smoke was visible inside our house.  Nobody was telling us, or anyone around us, to evacuate.  Everyone in my family was feeling ill, but also feeling like they didn’t want to leave home.  They felt like we should just wait it out.  Most people I knew weren’t acting like we were in the midst of a public health emergency.  Thousands upon thousands of people were in bigger emergencies, facing bigger losses.  We were surrounded by smoke and getting sicker as the days went on, but we had a home and there was no fire encroaching upon us.   

I insisted we needed to try something different.  I didn’t want to leave my neighborhood and city, but I also didn’t think it made sense to keep living in thick smoke.  I won my family over enough to help me.  We quickly researched the closest places with clean air, pulled together enough resource to find a place to stay and packed our car and left town.  We told some friends what we were doing and invited them to join us.  Some did.  We drove over 100 miles to cleaner air, though we could still smell smoke.  The next day we drove another 150 miles and found actual clean air.  According to the maps, there weren’t that many places to go with clean air.  We were privileged to have the resource to be able to leave, though a lot of people I know who also had the option, decided to stay.  Some people I’ve talked to worked at sealing their houses, got air purifiers and respirators and stayed inside. But the vast majority of people didn’t have the option of leaving.  And a lot of people were less protected from the smoke than we were—people without homes living outside or people living in less durable housing that offered less protection from the smoke. Many people had to work outside and couldn’t get off work.

Now my family is living on the road, wanting to go home, but hoping not to have to until the smoke eases.  Right now, we’re happy to be in clean air we can breathe. My son is happy to be able to play hard and be outside again.  All of our symptoms have either decreased a lot or resolved.  We’re not sure exactly when we'll go home.  As we’ve traveled, we’ve met many people who are also fleeing the smoke—almost all families with children.

We’ve been thinking about different things.  We’re strategizing about how to fix our house so it’s more sealed up against smoke in the future.  We’re brainstorming about what it means to prepare for these fires and other climate chaos in the future, knowing they will be worse in unpredictable ways.  We’re thinking about what it means for our city and cities around us to be prepared for climate crises in the future.  How do we make sure people are safely housed in our city?  How do we make sure that vulnerable people have access to public buildings with effective air filtration systems?  How do we get our libraries, schools and other public buildings set up for this? How do we protect our schools so they remain public buildings available for public use and aren’t privatized by charter companies? How do we make sure that everyone has access to respirators and proper protection?  Children’s lungs are still developing until age 7. Most respirators that are easily purchased are in adult sizes and don’t fit children properly, thus not providing protection.  How do we make sure that all children (and particularly those whose lungs are developing) have effective protection?  How do we keep these fires from continuing to get worse every year?  How do we think with our neighbors about how we can pull together in the future?  How do you think about organizing people when everyone needs to stay inside? When do you stay and when is it time to leave?  How do you develop judgment about these things?

There are also significant issues that need to be addressed in how fires are fought in California.  Firefighting resources tend to protect the resources of wealthy people, and not the lives and resources of poor and working class people.  People who are incarcerated in prisons are being used as firefighters in these huge and dangerous wildfires—risking their lives doing life saving work and being paid only $1 per hour.  When these experienced firefighters, who protected so many people, are released from prison, they are not allowed to be hired as professional firefighters because of their criminal records.  Racism, classism and related systemic injustices are woven throughout environmental and climate injustice in countless ways.

Wildfires are a natural part of the ecology in many parts of California.  There are lots of things to think about related this, that haven’t been thought about well because of greed, but I won’t write about that here.  But because of climate chaos caused by the burning of fossil fuels, wildfires that usually would only happen naturally in summer and fall are now happening all year round it seems.  They keep happening.  They are getting bigger and more destructive each time.

Many of the wildfires lately have been ignited at least in part by California’s privately owned energy company (Pacific Gas and Electric—PG&E).  The company hasn't maintained their power lines well, which has resulted in igniting these huge wildfires.  Lawsuits are being filed against PG&E.  The energy company seems to be defending itself to the public by saying the main reason for these fires is climate change.  Our current Governor (top political leader in California), is also defending them on these grounds.  It’s great that they are pointing to climate change, when it’s so hard to get the media to talk about climate change, but it seems they may be doing it for the wrong reasons. PG&E doesn’t want to pay for the damages caused by the fires.  I don’t know all the politics.  But I have been thinking their biggest liability isn’t their lack of maintenance, but their participation, profiteering and proliferation of the fossil fuel industry that is causing climate change.  Could we just claim public ownership of energy production and distribution in California? Could we quickly end fossil fuel production and use in California?  Could a publicly owned energy system make a rapid transition to renewable energy?  Could this provide lots of good jobs to people in need of high quality employment?  Could these jobs be made available to people living in communities hardest hit by environmental racism and climate change?

It’s seems like it’s been hard for people in other places to get a good picture of what is happening here.  Monied interests don’t want information to get out widely and don’t want honest discussions.  They don’t want this because these discussions will have to address climate change and chaos, the fossil fuel industries and the need for a just transition to a human society.

I also know that for various reasons, a lot of  people have a lot of feelings about California.  I won’t go into much of a discussion of the many reasons for this, but they have to do with the oppressive role that the owning class in California has played and currently plays in California, in the United States and the world. And very specific and overt ways that people have been restimulated and manipulated to view California as a place to live in fantasy.  These feelings can make it hard for people to see California as a real place with real people who live real lives, like everywhere else.  We are real people, living in a real place.  And things are tough here right now.

In solidarity and love,
Anonymous Mom
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
November 19, 2018

***A few facts about California from Wikipedia
39.5 million people live here.  Most of us are working class.  The majority of people in California are not white. At the same time, more white people live in California than any other state in the USA.  More Native Americans live here than any other state.  More Latinos live here than any other state.  More Asian Americans live here than any other state. California has the 5th largest African American population of any state in the US.

Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00