Wildfires are good. They are necessary for new growth of trees and for the health of ecosystems. We need fire, but not like this.
I walked outside my home in Oakland to get a coffee and heard a cacophony of echoes from people mulling about on the streets, their vanishing melancholy voices unknowingly repeating each other: “I can’t believe this. I’m living on another planet."
As I type this, the bright white blue light of my laptop looks like a false beacon next to the dark orange haze outside my window. It’s well after sunrise but it is almost completely dark outside, save for the alien glow pushing through the thick smoke. Images from California and Oregon are circulating around the internet, bright fruit punch-colored skies. With some pride, we compare ourselves to characters from Blade Runner and Mad Max. We are in such awe of our new world.
We created this new planet ourselves. Each fire season has gotten progressively worse. Our late summers and falls are sustaining higher temperatures, freakish wind events created by the changing climate push those fires harder and hotter temperatures mean they burn more intensely than they would otherwise.
The fires blotting out the sun over my home began a month ago during a freak lightning storm that blasted Northern California, sending down bolts of fire. Our skies were lit up like strobes during the night and we all knew, we were warned—no rain for months, the land was primed for fires. At 3 am I looked out my window and saw people in the building across the way watching the same synaptic arms of lightning stretch across the sky, turning it for a moment from black to light blue. We knew this would not go well.
Over 12,000 lightning strikes were reported during the week of August 19. Cal Fire reports that in 2020 alone there have been over 7,452 fires in California and since those fires started over one 2.6 million acres have burned, and counting. These are the worst fires in California’s history. And they are still burning. Climate scientist Daniel Swain told me, “I don't think many folks have yet grasped how far outside of historical experience these wildfire events are, collectively.”
He’s right. Each person I see on the street or buy coffee from says the same thing, “I hope this isn’t going to become normal.” But it already is.
I’ve lived in California all my life, for decades growing up in Los Angeles I watched the hills alongside the 405 burn, the Topanga pass ablaze, parts of San Fernando Valley scorched. Each year the small, bulbish clusters of dry brush caught fire, each year we would drive in traffic meandering through the flames on each side of the freeway, our “wows” becoming less emphatic as the years passed. Dark umber scars left barren patches along the road. People still tweet photos of those fires, shocked. I grew up with them. Some parts of the Earth just burn, it’s cyclical. We fight it and protect ourselves and prepare each year for the same fight. But the fires of my childhood were not like these.
In 1954 Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “All Summer in a Day.” It’s about kids who live on the planet Venus. It rains all year, every day, and they have to stay locked inside. They only get to see the sun for one hour every seven years. That hour becomes sacred, a time entitled to all beings who live there. The children grow up on a planet where seeing the sun is a precious and rare moment. The adults who grew up on Earth know no such scarcity.
We are beginning to know a scarcity of access to the star closest to us. In all my fire seasons, I’ve never seen the sun completely blotted out as it is now. There is so much dense smoke that not even radiation from the sun reaches the ground. The fires keep raging. As the days turn to weeks and now almost into months, I am getting used to the dull headaches from the smoke and the dry scratchy throat. Most people in the Bay Area don’t have air conditioning, and during this last heatwave were forced to bake inside our homes while the windows remained shut due to hazardous air. It is one disaster after the next and it is grating in a slow, nebulous, noxious way.
This fire season, we are also sheltering from a pandemic. Leisurely strolls around the block became the only sanity-saving measure while we locked ourselves inside each day, working longer hours, feeling the weight of mass deaths and the ever present invisible fear that we face each day. For Californians and now for those in Oregon, we see the threat. Its flames wrap themselves around entire cities, demolish mountains and ecosystems, their billowing smoke cloaks us overhead for weeks on end and the skies bleed like watercolor from yellowish orange to burnt sienna to red. We can’t see the flames, but our skies remind us, we are not safe here. We aren’t safe anywhere.
Each day we tweet and text, “I’ve never seen it, I’ve never heard of, I’ve never experienced...” Our nevers grow in capacity as the climate changes.
We are living in a new reality where, for California especially, but the entire Western United States, fire season no longer begins in fall, it begins in August. Where spring no longer means rain, it means “I really hope it rains just a little so that fire season isn’t so bad.”
The West is offering itself up as sacrifice to the rest of the world—watch us burn, learn from us. Here, there used to be a lushness, a virginal land beckoning like a siren. Come West! Go towards the place where everyone has a chance to live their best lives, to get rich, to find love. Now our land is a dystopia, our direction one that people are afraid to look. Our West is no longer a future of which anyone dreams.
The sky is turning from red to orange-green. No natural hues like this exist in daily life. Our animal brains have been trained for tens of thousands of years to run away from fire. If the sky changes to a color that makes your heart begin to race and your pupils dilate, you go the other direction. This is life in California now, this is one facet of a changing climate.
“I can’t believe.”
We are only at the beginning of our fire season. I know my friends and family who have evacuated several times already this year are facing the question we all are, do we stay here knowing that this is normal. That it might get worse. That it likely will.
Green watercolor into yellow, still no sun. I can smell the smoke now.
“I can’t believe.”
Margot is the name of the little girl in "All Summer in a Day" who is obsessed with the sun, enamored really. She is so little and only has vague memories of seeing it as a toddler. She recalls it looking like a “penny” in the sky.
There are many children sheltering with their families right now, already asking their parents about the colors encircling them. On Twitter a man posted that his child asked him, “Daddy, what time is it when the sky is orange?”
“Daytime,” he said.
Smoke and ash swirl around us, falling in poisonous dustings covering cars and our hair. There are no birds or animals out. They take shelter in the redwood trees and cypress trees, holding out, waiting for the smoke to move away just enough to make flying easier. All we animals know is that this is a warning. There are no chirps, no singing. There is a stillness almost like honoring a death. And isn’t that the truth of it. We are mourning the dead. We are mourning the end of what humans understood to be a comfortable planet to live on. We are mourning what we thought was a home for us, one we have permanently altered.
Not everyone in the world will feel the effects of climate change as extreme as Californians. But they will see it on our orange-cast surreal photos of street lights still on at noon, our dark asphalted roads coated in ash, and our collective exhaustion and sadness. They will know not to visit California in fire season, it’s not safe here.
In that story the teacher asks Margot to write a poem about the sun she loves so much, and only exists to her as a faint memory. This is what she writes:
I think the sun is a flower,
That blooms for just one hour.
We are past the point of disbelief. We are now in a new world. Climate change evokes different things to different people, but the essence of it is that we have set into motion changes that are turning what we knew Earth to be, into a new planet. The woman I heard on the phone this morning was pacing back and forth in front of a cafe. I watched as ash gently fell onto her top-knotted red hair. She kept saying: “It’s like I am living on another planet. I can’t breathe anymore, I hate this.”
They say: “I can’t believe.” Orange turns to yellow turns to pink. It’s raining ash again. Soon we will call it, simply, “weather.” And that is the new reality. It's not like we're living on another planet, we are living on another planet. The planet we were born into no longer exists. We have known this for some time, but now we have the skies to prove it.
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