MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — Another year, another fall, and our skies have turned hazy orange once again — ash from the Kincade fire, which first sparked about 60 miles away, began slowly falling onto my windshield in mid-October, like some perverse first snow of the season.
I am a freelance science writer. And for a week I wrote and reported from my car — the only place I had with a working phone charger and heat. Because the utility PG&E has outdated power lines with an unfortunate tendency to spark fires, they turned power off, affecting almost 2.7 million people. Over 180,000 people have reportedly been evacuated.
For days, almost all gas stations in the North Bay were closed. I went a week without electricity. To save fuel, every couple of hours I’d swap sitting at the desk inside of my chilly apartment for warming up and charging my devices in the car. It’s the sort of depressing ad hoc solution that countless Bay Area residents have been forced into creating. On Facebook, I see friends from college mark themselves as safe while others announce they are looking for shelter; on Twitter, a follower reported that her elderly parents who were in the affected area were ill and left without power, fresh food or access to their caretaker. During the last shut-off, a man relying on an oxygen machine died after losing his electricity.
Depending on the day, grocery store shelves are gutted and schools are closed. Family members throughout the state have been evacuated, losing days of pay, as they cross their fingers that their houses won’t be ash by the time they return. The air quality is still officially so bad it’s unsafe to be outside in a large, patchy network of area codes. And if you have no power, you can’t run air purifiers inside. Hospitals were running out of generator fuel. Life in the Bay Area hasn’t come to a complete halt, but weeks into this fire crisis it has become disturbingly halting.
It’s one thing to see images of glaciers cracking apart and to understand, journalistically, the gravity of rising sea levels, longer droughts and frequent extreme weather events. It is quite something else for this thing, this term, global warming, that we’ve talked and written about in the abstract to now be palpable in such a terribly quotidian way. As 11,000 scientists recently explained in an article for the journal BioScience: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”
I’ve spent my entire life in California, and fires have always felt like a pretty regular event. These past few years are something entirely new. Imagine if every year the borough of Queens or the Bronx could be expected to catch fire, and while Queens or the Bronx burned, the rest of New York City went without power — to stop another fire from starting nearby.
What if Houston and New Orleans knew to expect a Category 3 hurricane every single year instead of every few years. This will now be the violent, destabilizing rhythm of disaster in vast areas of America’s largest state.
As exhausted as I am angry, I’ve gotten used to seeing the almost C.G.I.-looking photos that appear from around the state, numb to the dystopian desolation and the towering flames that continue to dance along several major freeways, the strewn tires, skeletons of people’s homes, decimated forests and abandoned animals.
It’s unquestionable that this year’s Kincade fire grew with such disastrous rapidity because of the climate: When the fires started, our air was so devoid of moisture it was on a par with Antarctica’s, and parts of the Bay Area have experienced hurricane-force winds. Once sparked, the Kincade fire spread through a football field’s worth of land every three seconds. Finally, the blaze is mostly contained, but there are seven other fires raging in the state.
Some signs have made me wonder whether our more Hobbesian tendencies can be contained too. Every day, I drove to the East Bay, to a tiny pocket of Berkeley that still had power, so that I could go to one of the few grocery stores still open in the area. Hundreds, unsurprisingly, had the same idea. Even though everyone is supportive in the aisles — asking “Are you safe?” and “Where are you heading?” — there is a tension in the air too, as we practically lunge for the last bag of ice or can of food, as if we are all in the first act of some bad post-apocalypse movie.
My neighbors walk their dogs with face masks, and their kids play wearing specially ordered face masks, covered with emojis — trying to function normally in a world slipping away a bit more every autumn. Every night I sat in the darkness, illuminated by a flashlight and a few candles, with the man-made wildfires in the distance, and thought, “This is what the scientists warned us about.” Here’s the flashing red warning.
You may remember, for a time, floods and droughts were mostly the face of climate change. Many people shamed coastal communities for bothering to still live in those spaces. And as the Colorado River dried up out west, at first it felt like a problem for just the six or so states whose water supply was affected. And for a while, the rich in California thought they could insulate themselves. Maybe now — when it’s clearer than ever that eventually everybody has skin in the game — more of us will listen to calls for the radical reforms we’ll need to avoid burning alive.
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