Last Sunday, I awoke in my Bay Area home at 3 a.m. feeling deeply unsettled. Drapes rippled against an open window. The dog barked. Then a flash of lightning illuminated the darkness. The lightning wouldn’t stop for hours. I fell back asleep anxious, with an inexplicable feeling that I should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
Within just 72 hours, around 11,000 bolts of lightning had lit up the sky, struck parched land, and sparked hundreds of wildfires in California. Experts say climate change is responsible for the heat wave that preceded the historic lightning siege, making the blazes much more likely. It is yet one more example of the chaos that climate change can and will unleash on everyone.
Now, those of us who live in northern and central California are in the midst of not one tragedy but two: a pandemic, and numerous untamed wildfires that have killed several people, destroyed more than a million acres of land, and made our air unsafe to breathe.
By the end of the week, after looking in horror at photos of charred wilderness and smoke pouring over the Pacific Ocean, I felt a new conviction that we must do whatever is necessary to end the climate crisis. That means rapidly reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere in the next decade. It is a daunting challenge that can feel hopeless, but so is the prospect of praying each year that your home is spared from an inferno, or any other natural disaster linked to climate change.
I’ve written about dealing with climate change anxiety and talking to children about climate change. I interviewed evacuees of the Tubbs Fire, which tore through Santa Rosa and Napa in 2017, and wept while writing about their experiences. Yet, I’ve never before felt this urgency. Maybe it’s because two of the fires are the second and third largest in the state’s history. Perhaps the pandemic’s effect of stopping us in place made it impossible to escape or compartmentalize the devastation underway.
Climate change will come for the land you love. It will come for your community and livelihood.
What I now viscerally understand is that there is no time to waste. Climate change will come for the land you love. It will come for your community and livelihood.
Californians have long lived with fire season. Droughts are common, there’s plenty of fuel to burn, and we’ve built too much in fire-prone areas. Even heightened levels of devastation wrought by climate change aren’t new. In the three years since the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and burned nearly 47,000 acres, we’ve become accustomed to annual wildfires and hazardous air that send thousands fleeing for safety and leave us trapped inside for days at a time. But it’s harrowing to be under siege from multiple directions, our firefighting forces worn perilously thin. The anger and sorrow only build when you realize the state depends on prison labor to battle wildfires and cannot continue that exploitative practice because inmates have received early releases due to the pandemic.
The CZU Lightning Complex fire in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties — one of three major fires in the Bay Area — has swept through 79,000 acres, turning homes and wilderness areas to ash. That includes Big Basin State Park, home to some of the oldest redwood trees on the planet, and the place where I first saw a redwood tree. I remember, at age 10, craning my neck to get a glimpse of the trees’ majestic crowns hundreds of feet above me.
Preliminary reports suggest the most ancient of those trees survived, but countless others were toppled and the park headquarters and many cabins are gone. Redwood trees are resilient to fire thanks to their thick bark. Yet it feels perverse to create the conditions that make their demise more likely, then invoke their resilience as cause for optimism. The redwoods we cherish can only withstand so much scarring in their lifetimes.
Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State who also has fond memories of Big Basin State Park, said in an email that climate change is to blame for the widespread fires.
“The connection with climate change isn’t subtle, it’s clear — take more persistent and widespread drought, combine with record heat, and you get more expansive, more intense, faster-spreading wildfires,” he wrote.
Our only choice to avoid this fate as our future is to embrace clean, renewable energy. Our goal should be to avoid greater than 2 degrees Celsius average warming.
“[T]here is no amount of adaptation or resilience that will protect us from harm if we continue down this road,” he wrote. “We must decarbonize our economy, and rapidly.”
The average person, choking on smoke and readying their emergency go-bag, is too preoccupied with ensuring their survival to focus on decarbonization. It is, however, the long-term solution to their immediate crisis.
“I don’t want to feel this way. I want to do whatever it takes to stop this.”
Claire Tacherra-Morrison, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, joined the climate change youth activist group in 2017, after a wildfire threatened her family’s home in northern California.
“I got a message from my mom with a picture of flames coming over the ridge,” she says. “I just remember feeling such a sense of panic, hopelessness, and powerlessness. I said, ‘I don’t want to feel this way. I want to do whatever it takes to stop this.'”
Even the smallest steps count, says Tacherra-Morrison. That includes phone banking, holding elected officials accountable for their opposition to solutions, and voting for candidates committed to solving the climate crisis. The Sunrise Movement organizes support for the Green New Deal, a Congressional resolution that proposes transforming the American economy by, among other things, transitioning it to clean, renewable energy, with the goal of creating millions of well-paying jobs in the process.
Whether you support the Green New Deal or not, pressuring elected officials to act on climate change is critical. But there is also something else we must do: learn from and cede the way for Native Americans whose ancestors knew California’s land far better than non-Indigenous people ever will. Oral history, anthropological records, and archeological evidence suggest that the Native Americans who lived here for millennia used controlled burns to reduce potential fuel for wildfires, and managed tree growth and grasslands to achieve ecological balance. That knowledge can’t save us from climate change, but it can protect the land — and us — from the worst effects of a warming planet.
“From a Native point of view, our creation story tells us that…we have the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things,” says Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and president of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, which has participated in archeological field research along the California coast and aims to make Indigenous people stewards of their ancestral land. “We recognize that as a sacred obligation.”
Though non-Indigenous Californians have not been granted the same trust, it would be a mistake to mourn the fires’ devastation without reflecting on how we might also honor the land and support tribal efforts to implement their traditional knowledge as they protect spaces others have long taken for granted.
Extreme weather events are a wake-up call, and this moment must be a turning point. On Wednesday, a Category 4 hurricane is poised to strike the Gulf Coast, threatening an “unsurvivable storm surge” along a vast stretch between Texas and Louisiana. Of course, climate change can make hurricanes more dangerous. If any catastrophic weather event could be a wake-up call for California and the United States, let the fires serve that purpose. I fear what will happen — the lives and land lost — if we wait for yet another.