Going to college comes with many stressors. I expected some of them: the scramble to find a seemingly compatible roommate (on social media), cavernous lecture halls with more people than you can count, watching the sun rise from the library for the first time. Witnessing wildfires sweep across my home state while I was frustratingly far away was not one of them.
I’ve been in college for two years now and, in November and December of both years, I’ve received snippets of news and breathtaking photos of the places I know and love against a harrowing backdrop of wildfires. Most of the time I don’t need to read the small caption, a footnote to tragedy and chaos, because I already know where it is. These are places where I’ve hiked, my favorite lookout spots: I know this topography like the back of my hand.
During these few weeks, I would impulsively refresh my google search of these fires. I’d frantically process the shifting maps, satellite images, and firsthand accounts. As the percentage of containment oscillated, I’d call my parents to see if there was any word on the ground that the news outlets weren’t getting, hoping it would appease my nerves.
In 2017, the Thomas Fire was considered the largest and deadliest fire in California history. It killed 23 people. It is no surprise that in 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest in California history, by acreage. Also, in 2018, the Camp Fire became the deadliest fire in California history. It killed 86 people.
One question remains: what will happen in 2019, 2020, and 2021?
Climate change is not responsible for wildfires. They are as much a feature of earth’s natural processes as hurricanes or floods. Climate change, though, is responsible for the steep intensification of these fires, and the consequences are dire. Beyond the tragic loss of human life and homes, fires to the magnitude of those in California release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and smog into the atmosphere. Furthermore, ecosystems are disturbed if not ruined by these disasters, and once the fires are out and the smoke clears, the disruption of soil lasts for years.
It is hard to quantify the damage wrought by these fires. The more acreage that burns the more environmental toll that comes with it. Headlines are saturated with rising death tolls and personal accounts of terror and loss. These fires do not discriminate but unfortunately the response efforts often do. Residential versus commercial, low value land versus high value land: the sense of urgency varies. When the Skirball Fire budded up against expensive private schools and museums on the fringes of Los Angeles, the response was swift and calculated. Not only were lives at stake, money was about to burn. That is one of the time-tested tragedies of natural disasters. Communities of wealth possess the implicit advantage of swift response. I can’t help but think of the differences between my hometown’s experience and that of, say, Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, where response and relief was fatally delayed.
I’ve been very lucky in my life. I grew up in a beautiful, environmentally protected place around people who wanted to keep it that way. I’d never felt climate change up close and personal, until those fires came barreling across my home state.
In 6th grade geology we had a unit about earthquakes and the elevated risk in Southern California — it shook me to my core. I was terrified that all of the sudden the earth beneath my feet would give way and swallow me whole. That’s the first time I’ve ever been scared of my planet, its volatility and finality. I thought that I could conquer that fear and I wouldn’t be scared of my planet anymore. But, for the past two years, I wasn’t just scared of my planet. For the first time, I feared for it.
Now is the time for climate action, before it’s too late.