This week began feeling like a failure, but ended with hope for humanity.
Yesterday, I finally gave in to the San Francisco public health warnings and purchased a respirator mask. For days, the air quality index has been hovering above 180, or in the “Unhealthy” range. It wasn’t even this bad when the Napa and Sonoma fires of 2017 blanketed the city with smoke.
These respirators represent a grim future I fear already is here — one in which breathing masks are the norm. I imagine a dystopian world where my grown up niece and nephews will consider shopping for the latest fashionable respirator as mundane as I might shop for shoes today.
As you’ve probably heard, my home state of California is on fire… again. The Camp Fire has taken the crown from the extreme fires I wrote about this summer as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It has annihilated several communities in the Sierra Nevada foothills, including Paradise and Concow. Other towns, such as Magalia, Centerville, Pulga and Yankee Hill, have all been devastated by the flames. As of this writing, 56 people have died from the fire and 8,817 structures have been destroyed. Hundreds are still missing. Meanwhile, the Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fires are raging in Southern California.
And once again, President Trump said some horrible things about the fire (because of course he did), including that he would withhold federal aid due to his assertion that the blazes could be blamed on poor forest management.
Well, California’s firefighters had something to say about that:
"The president’s assertion that California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong,” said Brian Rice, president of the California Professional Firefighters, in a statement. “Wildfires are sparked and spread not only in forested areas but in populated areas and open fields fueled by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity and geography.”
Rice went on to say that nearly 60 percent of California forests are under federal management, and another one-third under private control. Therefore, it’s the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California.
And, of course, this is yet another manifestation of climate change.
As WIRED’s Matt Simon writes: “We can point to the wind or the lack of rainfall to explain the flames laying waste to Californian homes. But the devastation of this month’s fires is ultimately a product of a warming world. The climate change reckoning is here. This is what inaction looks like.”
This particular climate disaster — and yes, that’s what the Camp Fire is — hit particularly close to home because it was the first time global warming almost killed someone I love. My aunt is a first grade teacher in the town of Magalia, and last week she barely escaped the fires with her life. Stuck in a traffic jam along the road back to her hometown of Chico, the winds caused the fire to jump on top of her. It got so bad that the police told her to get out of her car and run for it. She was lucky enough to make it out without any physical injuries. But my aunt’s fellow teachers and many of her students were not so lucky — most lost their homes in the fires.
Earlier this week, I sat at work contemplating what we might do to help these people. Many of my aunt’s students already came from nothing — with troubled families plagued by opioid addiction. What little they had was incinerated by the fire.
I asked my aunt if it would be helpful to pass the hat and raise some money for them, and she said she wanted to collect donations to purchase gift cards for them to buy basic necessities such as food, water and clothing. I got to work.
Enter my hope for humanity. While initially expecting a few friends and family members to donate and raise a couple hundred bucks at most, I was flabbergasted by the outpouring of support from people all over the world. A few posts on Facebook and LinkedIn yielded donations from friends and colleagues across the United States and as far away as Australia. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out with generous donations. As of this writing, we have raised nearly $6,000 from more than a hundred people — a mind-boggling figure. My cold heart grew 10 sizes when I learned that a 93 year old woman who volunteers at my other aunt’s school on the San Francisco Peninsula (lots of teachers in my family), donated $700.
Maybe it’s the images of the wholesale destruction of a community by a climate disaster, or the fact that nobody can ignore toxic air, but people finally are recognizing that something is wrong with the world and they want to do something to right it.
Make no mistake — we’re in the Age of Climate Disasters and this is something my generation is going to have to face. But my generation also is the last one that has time to do something about it. By the time my two year old niece and 6-month old nephews are my age (31), it will be too late for them to turn the tide. I’m going to keep trying to do something about it.
If you’re mad about these fires, sad about these fires or scared about these fire, stay mad, sad and scared. Whatever you do, don’t be ambivalent about these fires. It’s only a matter of time before a climate disaster finds you and the people you love. Do whatever you can to protect them... and you can do a lot.
We have the tools and (some) time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. All that we lack is the collective will to act. That’s where you come in.
Today, work to help those currently suffering from climate disasters, but don’t stop there. Tomorrow, go a step further and begin to hold your elected officials accountable for being inactive or regressive on climate change policy. Support businesses that embrace sustainability. Look for ways to contribute, however you can, to our collective efforts to build a better world.
Our future doesn’t have to involve wearing stylish respiratory gear as part of our daily routines. I’m going to imagine better, and I hope you do too.
If you would like to donate to my aunt’s Camp Fire relief fund, you can Venmo me directly at @mike-hower. Every cent will go directly into the hands of teachers and students victimized by these blazes.