Photo courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center
July has been a difficult month for a warming Planet Earth. Record heat was recorded across much of the globe and fires burned above the Arctic Circle. Here in the western part of the United States, dozens of wildfires are burning. One of the biggest of those fires, the Ferguson Fire, marched 20 miles to my house.
The first 10 years of my life were spent living at the end of a mile-long dirt road in the mountains of Mariposa County. My family home is tucked up against the National Forest boundary at about 4,000 feet. My Dad and his wife live there.
It’s a beautiful spot. Looking across the central valley at sunset is magical; as is the cool air rushing down the mountain at night after a hot summer day. An abandoned stage coach road to Yosemite runs right through our property — still visible even though no stage coach has rolled through the area in well over 100 years. The Miwok Indians used to live here too. You can still see their acorn grinding holes in the granite rocks and, if you are really lucky, you can find an arrowhead on the ground after a rain. There are regular visits from bobcats, coyotes, and deer – as well as the occasional sighting of bears and mountain lions.
But it is also rough country. It is steep and rugged, with thick brush. In the summer it has always been hot and remarkably dry. Over the past years, the summer has become hotter and dryer. And the summer has become longer. Weakened by drought and heat, the trees became susceptible to beetles. Now most of the pine trees in the forest are dead.
Growing up, there would be an occasional nearby wildfire. The fires could be scary and big, but they were relatively infrequent. Not anymore. The wildfires have grown bigger, scarier and they come nearly every year. Last year, the Detwiler fire burned over 80,000 acres and 61 homes. That fire came within a few miles of our house. A few years before that, the Rim fire decimated 400 square miles up the road along Highway 120.
This year, the Ferguson Fire started on July 13th near highway 140 — about 20 miles from my home. Two weeks later, it had burned its way through containment lines and arrived, literally, in my backyard. Hundreds of firefighters worked for days to try and save our home. Air tankers were dropping fire retardant so close to the house that it partially colored the house pink. Our closest neighbor, a quarter mile from the fire line, said the fire was so intense that 6-inch pieces of flaming tree were landing at his house. Two firefighters have died battling this fire.
The men and women fighting these fires are on the front lines of a much larger problem. And they know it. The Guardian newspaper just ran a story quoting Redding, CA firefighter Gabriel Lauderdale. He said that when he started, sometimes years passed without fires so big that his company was called to help outside their county. “Now, it doesn’t just happen every year, it happens multiple times every year,” he said. He hasn’t been home since June 25th because he has been helping fight fires all over the state. (theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/30/california-wildfires-climate-change-new-normal)
Welcome to the new normal, except it is going to get a lot worse. What we are seeing in California is what has been predicted by scientists for decades. This is what climate change looks like.
California is having its worst wildfire season on record – again. Writes the LA Times: “There are many reasons for the grim totals, but experts say one common denominator connects the disastrous fires: California is facing extreme heat, the likes of which it has never seen in the modern historical record.” (latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-fires-heat-20180731-story.html)
Of course, this is not simply a California problem. David Wallace Wells wrote last week in New York magazine about just how bad it is this year across the globe. He called July a “month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors.”
“In a single week earlier this month, dozens of places around the world were hit with record temperatures in what was, effectively, an unprecedented, planet-encompassing heat wave: from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The temperature of one city in Oman, where the daytime highs had reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit, did not drop below 108 all night; in Montreal, Canada, 50 died from the heat. That same week, 30 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one, in California, that grew at the rate of 10,000 football fields each hour, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term — “fire tsunami” — along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. The following week, the heat struck there, killing dozens.” (nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/07/climate-change-wildfires-heatwave-media-old-news-end-of-the-world.html)
Climate change can seem remote – something we will experience in the future or that will affect other people in far-off places. But climate change is not only “real”, it is now. And it is right here.
My family was lucky this time. Three days of heroic work by firefighters paid off. Our home survived. Soon, when the evacuations are lifted and the ground has cooled, my Dad and I will drive up to survey the damage and plan for the future. It will be a future that looks a lot more like last week than we’d like to admit.
And then, I will join my colleagues back at Renew Financial – where 300 of us are working hard every day to help America transition to an energy system and an economy that isn’t making the problem even worse. There is so much at stake. And we don’t have much time to act.
There are many good organizations to support in the fight against climate change. And if you want recommendations there, please let me know. (Or just upgrade your home to be more efficient!)
But today, I want to focus on the people at the front lines of this fight: The firefighters and other first responders, the disaster relief teams, and the other community groups helping those that have been displaced by the fires or extreme weather.
I’ve sent some money to the Mariposa County Foundation disaster relief fund. This is a small rural county that has had more than its fair share of climate change-related disasters: mariposacommunityfoundation.org/MCF/
But I’m also supporting CalFire firefighters who lead the response to many of the wildfires in the State. You can make a donation to CalFire here: cafirefoundation.org
Lastly, Renew Financial has been supporting Habitat for Humanity in Florida as they help families repair homes damaged by Hurricane Irma: habitat4humanity.org
I hope you can lend some support as well.