As California Burns, Climate Change Demands Increased Attention

Since social-distancing started, most of our social media feeds have changed from pictures of outings with friends to information about current events, from COVID-19 procedures to protests to more recently orange, smokey skies. These photos are definitely concerning, but many don’t understand the true severity of the current situation in California. While this could be seen as just another fire season, things are getting worse over time, and these fires are affecting real people.
Towards the end of August, news spread of a gender reveal party gone wrong, a smoke bomb igniting tall grass in the El Dorado Hills (Davidson). This party was the cause of the El Dorado Fire, which as of 9/16 had burned over 18,092 acres and was only 60% contained, according to CAL FIRE. Currently, ten wildfires are burning across California, including the El Dorado Fire. The largest of these ten is the SCU Lightning Complex, which has burned over 397,000 acres with complete containment expected by 9/30 (CAL FIRE). It can be hard to visualize acreage. For reference: Kennebunk is 43.87 square miles, which is roughly 28,077 acres, about 1/14 of the acreage burned by the SCU Lightning Complex alone. While California does have a wildfire season, usually the most serious between August and November, one thing should be noted: this fire season is not typical. The average of the past five years (2015-2019), from 1/1 – 8/30, there has been 4,162 fires, burning about 309,675 acres. From 1/1 – 8/30 of 2020, there were 5,924 fires, burning over 1,059,583 acres (CAL FIRE). That means that this year alone, nearly 3.4 times as many acres have been burned than the average of the past four years.
This fire season isn’t just slightly abnormal, it’s the beginning of a critically worsening pattern, and without new reform addressing the climate crisis, it will continue to worsen. The Lightning Complex Fires alone have damaged or destroyed over 3,500 structures in Northern California from 8/17-9/1 (Insurance Information Institute). Smoke has been traveling all over the country, even accounting for our own hazy skies here in Maine. According to the Portland Press Herald, this haziness is only set to increase in the coming days. The West Coast’s air quality has been threatened by the fires. According to the New York Times, millions have been homebound by the toxic air. The Air Quality Index in most of the West Coast is currently considered to be unhealthy or very hazardous (PurpleAir).
I had the opportunity to speak with a small business in western Marin County, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. The business, Pt. Reyes Flowers, is a family-owned florist and flower farmstand. The owners, Peggy, Jim, and Mary, answered a few of my questions about the impact these fires have had on them and the business. They shared that a typical fire season has no impact on their business. This year, however, the farmer’s market they sell at was canceled because outdoor working conditions were too unhealthy. While they were not forced to evacuate, they did take a few days away from the business because of the smoky conditions. Ash damaged some of their flowers and rendered their medicinal plants unharvestable. Despite current conditions, Pt. Reyes Flowers is keeping an open mind. They said their community at Pt. Reyes Station was very aware and supportive, saying that “COVID gave [them] practice.” They referenced me to an article by the LA Times, which focused on another business in Pt. Reyes Station, the KWMR Radio Station. Through both the pandemic and the fires, KWMR, the only station in Pt. Reyes Station, has continued operating, providing needed updates and support to the community. As a final message, Pt. Reyes Flowers said that they’re pleased to continue providing flowers to the community and would like everyone to remember their motto, “love and flowers!”
Seeing this influx of information can be discouraging. Researching this piece was informative, but it was also disheartening to see the devastation the climate crisis, and in turn these fires, are causing. I hope this piece inspires you to take action. To prevent the climate crisis from completely destroying our planet, we need to encourage our elected officials to make reform and support change and we need more media coverage on the lives these fires are affecting. If you’re looking to take action right now, I’ve included some donation links that are supporting those affected by the fires.