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The California Wildfires

[This article was written on November 18, 2018.]

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

There are multiple wildfires burning. The “Camp Fire” in Northern California has been by far the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded California history. Currently over seventy people are confirmed dead and over a thousand are missing from this one fire, and the numbers increase every day. Over twelve thousand structures have been destroyed, and 149,000 acres of land have burned. An entire town of twenty-nine thousand people burned completely to the ground. Tens of thousands of people have lost their homes, and many are living in unhealthy refugee camps. Millions are breathing air that is hazardous to their health.

This year wildfires have burned over a million and a half acres in California—the largest amount ever recorded here in one year. This is largely because of climate change, caused by humans’ use of fossil fuels.

Hundreds of thousands of stories 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 my story.

The “Camp Fire” started on Thursday, November 8. It’s over a hundred and fifty miles from my home, but thick smoke has covered where I live for over a week. Of course, the fire’s intensity and size at this time of year is due to climate change, but so is the fact that smoke from so far away has settled for so long in the Bay Area. Usually November is a time of cool days and cool nights. With climate change, the nights have been cold and the days much warmer. Sometimes there’s been a thirty- to forty-degree (Fahrenheit) difference. From what I’ve read, the big difference in day and night temperatures is part of what has caused the smoke from the fire to get stuck close to the ground.

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

My child became irritable. He was discharging a lot but was still really struggling, in an unusual way, to get his attention out and enjoy the things he usually did. He lost his appetite and stopped eating much at all. He became lethargic and sleepy and started feeling dizzy. He and I both got headaches and had upper respiratory congestion and coughs. My eyes burned, 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 of the people around me were just trying to get through it all. 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. Some would make jokes about the apocalypse or Armageddon but then move on.

People seemed terrified, numb, and like they were feeling powerless. They seemed to be hoping that the fires would get put out soon, that rain would come, that the winds would shift, that there would be some relief. They seemed to feel like we shouldn’t make a fuss because other people had it worse; our homes weren’t burning.

Staying inside our house stopped being enough protection. Over time the smoke came in more and more. We could smell it, and the air felt thicker. We were trying to handle it and make life work. We got respirators and started wearing them in the house.

Stores started running out of respirators. People started making plans to buy them in the future to have on hand [available] for future fires. We bought an air purifier online, but it was going to take days 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 related to the smoke. Of course, smoke is bad for people to breathe, but this smoke was not just from burning wood. Many kinds of human-built structures had burned, releasing all kinds of toxins.

After a week of living in smoke, I realized that we needed to evacuate. By then thick smoke was visible inside our house.

Nobody was telling us, or anyone around us, to evacuate. All of us in our family were feeling ill but also like we didn’t want to leave home and should just wait it out. Most of the people I knew weren’t acting like they were in the midst of a public health emergency. Thousands of people were in bigger emergencies, facing bigger losses. We were surrounded by smoke and getting sicker, but we had a home, and no fire was encroaching on us.

I insisted that we needed to try something different, and I won my family over [convinced my family of my perspective] enough to help me. We quickly researched the closest places with clean air, pulled together enough resource to get a place to stay, 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 a hundred miles to cleaner air but could still smell smoke. The next day we drove another hundred and fifty miles and found actual clean air. According to the maps there weren’t many places to go that had clean air. As we traveled, we met many people—almost all families with children—who were also fleeing the smoke.

We were privileged to have the resource to be able to leave. But a lot of people who also had the option to do so decided to stay. Some of them worked at sealing their houses, got air purifiers and respirators, and stayed inside. The vast majority of people didn’t have the option of leaving, and a lot of them were less protected from the smoke than we had been. Some were without homes and were living outside. Some were living in less durable housing that offered less protection from the smoke. Many 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. We are happy to be in air that we can breathe. My son is able to play hard and be outside again. All of our symptoms have either decreased a lot or resolved.

We are strategizing about how to fix our house so that it’s more sealed up against smoke in the future. We are brainstorming about what it means to prepare for future fires, and other climate chaos, knowing that they will be worse in unpredictable ways.

We are thinking about what it means for our city and the cities around us to be prepared for future climate crises. How do we make sure that people are safely housed? 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 that 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 other protection? Children’s lungs are still developing until age seven. Most respirators that are easily purchased come in adult sizes and don’t fit children properly. How do we make sure that all children (particularly those whose lungs are developing) have effective protection? How do we keep the fires from continuing to get worse every year? How do we think with our neighbors about pulling together in the future? How do we organize people when everyone needs to stay inside? When do we stay, and when is it time to leave? How do we develop judgment about that?

We also need to address how fires are fought in California. Firefighting resources tend to go to protecting the resources of wealthy people and not the lives and resources of poor and working-class people. Also, people incarcerated in prisons are used as firefighters in these huge and dangerous wildfires. They risk their lives doing lifesaving work and are paid only a dollar per hour (or less). When these experienced firefighters who have protected so many people are released from prison, they aren’t allowed to be hired as professional firefighters because of their criminal records. Racism, classism, and related systemic injustices are woven into environmental disasters in countless ways.

Wildfires are a natural part of the ecology in many parts of California. But because of climate chaos caused by the burning of fossil fuels, wildfires that would naturally happen only in summer and fall are happening all year ’round. And they are getting bigger and more destructive each time.

Many of the recent wildfires have been ignited at least in part by California’s privately owned energy company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E)—due to how it hasn’t maintained its power lines well. Lawsuits are being filed against the company, and the company is defending itself by saying that the main cause of the fires is climate change. Our governor is also defending the company 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 it, but they are doing it for the wrong reasons.

Pacific Gas and Electric doesn’t want to pay for the damage caused by the fires. But I’m thinking that their biggest liability isn’t their lack of maintenance; it’s their participation in, profiteering from, and advancing of the fossil fuel industry, which is causing climate change.

Could we just claim public ownership of energy production and distribution in California? Could we quickly end California’s production and use of fossil fuel? Could a publicly owned energy system make a rapid transition to renewable energy? And could that provide lots of good jobs to people in need of high-quality employment? Could these jobs be made available to people living in the communities hardest hit by environmental racism and climate change?

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

Also, a lot of people have feelings about California. This has to do with the oppressive role the California owning class has played in California, the United States, and the world, and the ways that people have been restimulated and manipulated into viewing California as a place to live in fantasy. All this can make it hard for people to see California as a real place with real people who live real lives.

Over thirty-nine million people live in California. Most are working class. The majority are not white. More Native Americans, Latinos/as, and Asian Americans live here than in any other state. California has the fifth-largest African American population of any U.S. state. (from Wikipedia)

We are real people, living in a real place. And things are tough here right now.

Anonymous Mom

San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list
for leaders in the care of the environment


Last modified: 2019-05-21 23:44:44+00