When I landed in California over the weekend, the entire flight cabin felt slightly overcast with an ominous daze of uneasiness regarding what we would be arriving to when we reached San Francisco International Airport. The passengers were abuzz with conversations regarding their proximities to the wildfires, the safety of their families and, of course, the quality of the air. In San Francisco, at least, that was what was awaiting us.
It is startling to see my home subsumed by smoke and mist. It is disconcerting not to be able to go on the morning hiking trail I’ve been used to walking on since I was a child, and it is eerie to see both drivers and pedestrians moving through their daily routines with face masks on to protect themselves from the “Very Unhealthy Air Quality.” But what’s scarier is going through the motions within this smoggy haze and knowing that what we are experiencing is all but a residual aftercurrent of California’s natural disaster — because in this area of California, we are, in fact, the lucky ones.
The fires in Northern California have destroyed more than 12,200 homes and buildings, over 1,200 people are reported missing and at least 76 are confirmed dead. Over 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Malibu, and 200,000 residents evacuated their homes in and around Thousand Oaks in Southern California. The two-pronged catastrophe has left little of California untouched. The state is reeling, and no one knows when it is going to stop.
We may not have determined the exact reason behind what initiated these twin wildfires. But it should come as no surprise to anyone that the horrific scale of these fires — which are occurring annually with an increasing frequency and intensity — is inextricably linked to a rapidly warming world. There is a distinct irony in observing the current administration’s acknowledgment of what they have called the “total devastation” of Californian lands while their rhetoric and policy have only ever stood to discourage any potential work toward climate change reform. It is somewhat disheartening to watch a president disregard the calamitous findings of the 2018 United Nations Climate Report while literally walking through the evidence with his own two feet.
This last year, California experienced its hottest summer in recorded history, and authorities have been quick to note that the ferocity and duration of this catastrophe can be attributed to, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “winds so strong they knocked down power lines, extremely dry conditions and an abundant supply of combustible material from a years long drought that killed millions of the state’s trees.” The effects of global climate change are turning our woodlands into arid kindling. And it was just last year when the Tubbs Fire in Northern California became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, burning 36,000 acres of homes and consuming parts of California’s eminent wine country and vineyard-strewn terrain — until now.
To those of us who serve as bystanders, these natural disasters are haunting indications of not only of what is occurring, but what is to come. But for the citizens of the rapidly increasing number of towns, neighborhoods and communities that have been reduced to rubble, the effects of the climate change that the irresponsible members of our government called a “hoax” and continue to belittle are immediate. The fear we associate with a planet compromised by climate change is no longer a dystopian apprehension for the future. It is happening right now as the earth’s temperatures continue to rise and those in power continue to disregard their duty to protect their environment and their citizens.
Many have mentioned how lucky California is to have a governor like Jerry Brown, who has publicly attributed these tragedies to the effects of a “warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture.” We are in need of individuals in office who not only acknowledge that our citizens and our planet are hurting but also that this loss is the result of an epidemic that we, as human beings, have the power to help control.
For now, those of us in California grab air masks and wait for rain. We make plans to stay indoors and observe the looming clouds outside, and we understand that as harrowing as it might seem to see our hometown engulfed by a yellow-gray haze, we are only experiencing a reverberation of the environmental calamities of these wildfires. The real nightmare is no longer a figment that might be on its way — it is here and it is now, as our lands burn, and as we are reminded yet again that tragedies like these will only continue and amplify should we neglect our duty to safeguard our citizens and safeguard our planet.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 19 print edition.
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Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected]