There’s No Looking Away From This Year’s California Fires
What we saw in California this year is unlike anything that has come before. But odds are we’ll see it again.
There is only one story in California, and that is the fires. What are we going to do about the fires?
On Friday evening, after a week spent indoors trying to avoid breathing the filthy air outside my windows, my family and I jumped in the car and drove from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. It was one of the only spots on PurpleAir’s map of the state that wasn’t covered in the orange, red, or purple dots that indicate smoke-filled air. While smoke from fires has drifted into San Francisco before — most notably last October when multiple fires lashed across the wine country — in the 20 years I’ve lived here it’s never stuck around like this. I’ve never seen so many people in masks or seen the sky stay so dark for so many days on end. As California’s fires go, this was something new.
2018 is the year when everyone, everyone, in the state ran from the fires or choked on the fumes. It is a before-and-after moment. In California, in mid-November of 2018, it became as clear as it did in New York in mid-September of 2001 that what was a once-distant threat has now arrived.
The two major fires (and there are others) that have run through California in recent weeks were unique. Scores of people are dead. Almost a thousand are still missing. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed in fires that have chewed through nearly 250,000 acres. Meanwhile, millions of people are stuck under a blanket of toxic smoke. These fires were equal-opportunity destroyers that ravaged cities as far apart and different as the Northern California hill town outpost of Paradise, and Southern California’s wealthy beachside enclave of Malibu. The fire crossed class divides while highlighting them too — even as thousands were made homeless, a wealthy few were able to enlist private firefighters to protect their property.
Many factors made the situation what it is — a sprawl of homes slung into the wilderness, for example, and fire management practices. But the most salient cause is climate change. We are a state of dead trees and drought, forests full of upright tinder where bark beetles chew through perished crimson-colored forests that should be all evergreen boughs. We have built our homes in canyons and on hillsides that resemble chimneys. And now it doesn’t seem like there’s any way out.
It feels like a ratcheting up of calamitous forces already well underway. Yes, the Camp fire is the most destructive in California’s history. But the largest fire in California’s history, the Mendocino Complex fire, was also in 2018. The second-largest fire? It was in 2017. The second most destructive? Also in 2017. And the fires now burn nearly all year round; there is no more “fire season.”
And though the future seems menacing, it’s hard to fathom quite yet, given the ghastliness of the present. The devastation in Paradise and neighboring towns all around Chico is utterly horrifying. It is a heartless and cruel scene: search crews sifting through ash hoping to find fragments of bone. Vehicles filled with the dead, who could not outrun the flames. Norovirus raging through the shelters where refugees have fled. Nearly two weeks after the fire began, we still are unable to tally the dead or even sort them from the missing.
It has forced the cities to take notice. Red and blue California are both burning. The Camp fire started on November 8, and within a day you could smell the smoke in San Francisco. Eleven days later, you still can. The Department of Emergency Management continues to send alerts to tell people to stay indoors — not that they need much urging. From San Jose to Sacramento, the air is so thick and putrid that it blots out the sky and the sun and the stars. The smoke is so acrid, even at a distance of a hundred miles, that it makes your eyes water and lungs hurt. And we still haven’t put out the flames.
The smoke has now blanketed the state for more than a week. Schools and offices have closed as everyone hides inside, bouncing off the walls and refreshing AirNow.gov. Instagram became a flood of photos of people in masks. It stretched from Eureka to San Diego. And more than an annoyance, it carried real health risks.
The smoke was the only thing. You couldn’t escape it.
Except, you could.
In another preview of a post–climate change world, those with the resources had options. They could leave the smoke behind. Up in Lake Tahoe over the weekend, lots of people from the Bay Area and Sacramento were chasing the green dots of clean air. On a snow-free weekend, when normally the lake would be dead, streets were swarming with families. Restaurants had long lines to get in. Other families I know headed to green dot pockets in Big Sur or flew out of state altogether. A high-end $800 air filter from Molekule, a startup that was to a large extent built on the flames of California fires, was selling so fast that its makers couldn’t keep up with demand.
And those who can’t afford to buy their way out of it? They are left to choke in the purple air. Living in tent cities in Walmart parking lots, wondering who is alive and where help will come from, largely ignored by the nonstop media machine that can spin up into 12-camera remote action over a tropical storm that still hasn’t made landfall, but that basically wrote off the nation’s most important state in a desperate moment.
This is how bad it is: On Friday, officials instructed those who cannot find family members to come to the Sears in Chico and submit a cheek swab so that they can match bodies based on DNA.
There’s just this very large sense of what can you do? There are ways we can help in the immediate aftermath, but how do we stop it from happening again? We have fires because of climate change and because very many people are living in places they didn’t used to live, and neither of those problems has anything like a realistic solution.
When 9/11 happened, the majority of the United States’ population immediately, drastically changed the way we go about our business at home and abroad. Missiles fell from the sky, and still do today. We don’t seem prepared to face climate change in the same way. But this is it. It’s here. It’s real. And it’s going to get worse.
As a parent, you want to give your kids so much. You want to give them all that you have and all that you can get. You want to give them the world, and a better world than the one you’ve got. It’s terrifying to look up in the sky and think about what they’ll inherit. It’s terrifying to realize how little you can do as an individual to make it better.
What are we going to do about the fires? ●