During the last week of October, Menton was settling into a cool, rainy fall. Busy with midterms, I had more or less settled in as well and had finally stopped calling my parents every other day. And then wildfires struck my home state, California, and all of a sudden my mind was 6000 miles away again. Fall has always been fire season, so this wasn’t a surprise to me, but it was my first time watching it all unfold from the outside. I couldn’t smell the smoke or see the ash, but there were reminders everywhere I turned: old friends marking themselves “safe” on social media, my old school closing for two days (not due to direct threat but because of dangerous air quality, as they have had to do for the past two years during fire season), and daily headlines commenting on percentages of containment and acres consumed and structures burned and all these other numbers that suddenly become critical when a fire breaks out. Additionally, Columbia University sent out an email offering support to “those affected”, and even the lady at Menton’s La Poste, as I tried to mail a package home, told me she was sorry that “California was burning down”. My parents, who have admirably adapted to fire seasons the way other families adapt to heavier winters, told me on the phone that everything was fine—but news footage of toppling houses and burning brush just a few miles from where I lived seemed to tell me a different story.
I don’t want to over-dramatize my experience. The homes of my friends and family were mostly safe from the fires, and those who did evacuate had the privilege to stay elsewhere as long as they needed to. But that is not the story for thousands of other families in California, and I cannot overstate that the devastation fires like these add to the impending doom of climate change. So following are a couple of things to know and some of my thoughts about what’s happening in California.
Faced with these apocalyptic climate fires, regular wildfires feel like a thing of the past. The old once-every-few-years wildfires evoke images of Smokey the Bear, greeting you from the side of the road on a long drive, reminding us that “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Smokey was more right than we ever knew—human activity causes 90% of fires in the United States according to the Insurance Information Institute—but there was another major factor at play: drought due to unusual and sustained hot weather thanks to climate change. Quick and simplified reminder: burning fossils fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to hotter summers, shorter winters, and less rainfall in many parts of the world. This means that massive fires aren’t just caused by unattended campfires or a malfunctioning power line, but by lots of everyday activity, like driving and eating meat.
For those of you coming from places that haven’t experienced drought, let me put this in perspective for you. Last year, Los Angeles got less rain than Menton has gotten in the past month. Politicians ran entire campaigns based on desperation from the water crisis, which is how we ended up with a nincompoop like Devin Nunes, a congressional representative from the Great Central Valley in California who is currently leading the Republican’s unsubstantiated and disrespectful opposition to the presidential impeachment hearings. Nunes, ironically, does not think that global warming is real. He attributed the recent drought to a 1973 measure to protect endangered species that also introduced some restrictions on water use by farmers. In addition to being a certifiable waste of space, Nunes has also tried to pass legislation that would accelerate the use of fossil fuels in the United States. He himself comes from a family of dairy farmers, which explains why everything he does is vaguely reminiscent of cow shit. Excuse me, I’ve gotten off track.
The fire near my house this past month, the Getty fire (finally contained as of two weeks ago), was relatively small compared to parallel fires across the state—although it received disproportionate news coverage—and was likely due to its proximity to the Getty Museum and the homes of many celebrities. At 745 acres (301.5 hectares), the Getty Fire paled in size to the Kincade fire, which burned 77,758 acres (31467.5 hectares) in Northern California and threatened more than 90,000 homes. In total this year (as of Nov. 1), 200,000 acres (81,000 hectares) have burned across the state, which seems like a lot, but (as my dad bluntly put it in perspective for me) that is only 10% of the damage that California saw from fires in 2018. Does this show adaptability and lessons learned? Maybe. Does it make me feel a sense of deep, overwhelming dread of how bad things could get? Certainly. Prevention methods may have worked this year, but at what cost? Malfunctioning power lines in forested areas have been known to cause wildfires, so Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which supplies power to millions of Californians, has been conducting many planned outages this past fall as a fire-prevention measure. The outages may have stopped a potential fire (we will never know), but it’s a very disruptive and ineffective way of addressing the problem—UC Berkeley and other colleges in the area have canceled several days of classes, and homes and businesses without generators are been left scrambling on short notice. This has not helped PG&E’s reputation. The company has been dogged by mistakes in recent years, including an errant spark that caused the deadliest wildfire in California’s history last year. Now, they have filed for bankruptcy.
PG&E faulted in a situation where everyone and no one is to blame. Their systems were erroneously ill-equipped to keep up with the arid conditions, an effect of climate change. The now tarnished company may uproot its leadership, pay millions in damages and billions in adapting its systems, and still never keep up with the deadly winds of climate fires. Their downfall is just one of the many casualties these fires (and, more broadly, climate change) have caused, and it will not be the last.
As for me, I’m very grateful to be able to live and study abroad. From 6000 miles away, I’ve gained a new perspective on these climate fires. But although I adore the clear skies and fresh air of Menton, but my heart belongs to California, even if it is burning down.
This article is part of the special edition in partnership with Environnementon