When I woke up Tuesday morning, it looked like a cold September day, perfect for snuggling up with some hot chocolate and making pumpkin pancakes, but the weather app disagreed: it was 85 degrees out. The apparent fog was a layer of smoke from the surrounding fires.
I’ve lived in California my entire life, and I’ve grown accustomed to the inevitable firestorms in the fall. Most years, they start in October and run through November, inducing an eight-week reign of terror. But this year, Sonoma County was subject to dry lightning storms, which caused two fires to start within miles of my home in August. My family and I couldn’t believe it; we thought we had another two months before storing a “go-bag” by the door and checking constantly for fire updates became our reality again.
When I’m making breakfast and I look outside my kitchen window, I see an empty lot next to our fence. It serves as a constant reminder of the sudden and deadly Tubbs Fire that swept through my community in 2017 and wiped my neighborhood off the face of the Earth. It destroyed more than 5,000 structures and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night.
It was 1:30 a.m. when my family awoke to a neighbor banging on the door. What followed is a hodgepodge of memories sandwiched together, flashes of one coherent memory I can’t quite place: fumbling around in the dark (the power was out), grabbing the few things I could carry (my laptop and cell phone) and running out the front door into the orange glow of the rapidly approaching firestorm. My family lost everything we owned that night.
When we got the email notification that a fire broke out on Mt. Fiji Oct. 24, 2019 behind Oxy’s campus, I was in my education class. I left the classroom and called my dad, shaking and teary-eyed. When the fire alarm went off in Bell-Young Hall at nearly 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, my body threw itself into the fight-or-flight response that has become automatic when I catch an unexpected waft of smoke, or when the sky, laden with smoke, weighs heavily on my chest.
The fires are just getting worse. The Camp Fire in Northern California November 2018 surpassed the Tubbs Fire as the most damaging fire in California’s history. The 2017 fires should have been an anomaly. It shouldn’t be normal to have a bag packed by the door with the few items my family would want to save should another fire threaten our new home. And with the devastating fires raging in Oregon, Northern California and the Los Angeles area, it’s clear that something needs to be done to address these record-breaking disasters.
President Trump announced his intention to fully withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement June 1, 2017. The agreement focuses on keeping this century’s global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Climate change disproportionately impacts poorer nations and is making natural disasters more intense.
If that wasn’t enough of a reason to care, look at a place many of us call home: Oxy. Assuming we get the chance to go back someday, our community likely will be directly affected by the now-normal California wildfires.
Despite 10 record-breaking years, California’s 2020 wildfires are the worst ever. The health implications are widespread, with smoke from these fires traveling as far as the East Coast, spreading harmful air particles that can infiltrate the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body. Average summer temperatures are increasing as well, drying out vegetation and creating plenty of fuel for these disasters.
Scientists are in consensus that it is very likely the extremity of these fires is caused by climate change. 2019 was the second hottest year ever recorded, and 2020 is on its way to the top 10. These life-threatening disasters should be enough to promote serious awareness and action to combat climate change.
Natural disasters shouldn’t be normalized. In the past three years, every person I know from home has formed a disaster plan — and it isn’t because of hypotheticals. The fires have literally burned our doors down, and unless immediate action is taken to curb emissions and address the climate crisis, more people’s lives will be forever altered.