I think of California as a peek into our collective future. From the headlong greed of the Gold Rush in 1849 through Hollywood in the early part of the 20th century, Haight-Ashbury and the hippies, urban sprawl and smog, and the vast military spending that has fueled the state’s gigantic economic engine since the Cold War, California is always at least a few years ahead of the rest of the continent.
In many ways, the state is our canary in the coal mine – and California is burning.
I have never lived there, but I had a bicoastal relationship with a woman in San Francisco in the early 1980s when I lived in New York and spent many fascinating days there exploring redwood forests and Berkeley jazz bars. As part of my enduring fascination with the state, I subscribe to the Essential California newsletter written, most days, by a wonderful writer/reporter named Julia Wick of the Los Angeles Times. Wick has a gift for distilling all the state’s beauty and chaos into a deftly worded daily summary that sums up 21st century life as well as anyone can.
“There are few constants on this strange planet,” Wick wrote this week, “but typically one can at least count on the sun always rising. But on Wednesday morning, after days of wildfires, millions of Californians awoke to surreal orange skies and twilight-like darkness.
“Technically speaking, the sun did still rise, as 2020 has yet to prevent Earth from turning on its axis. But the spoke was so thick that it all but blotted out the sun in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay area.”
Wick mentions a tweet from the California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Division, with a photo that looked like the San Francisco Bay “transposed over the red planet of Mars,” evoking comparisons with “Blade Runner,” “Dune” and Mordor.
“Ash-covered cars turned on their headlights. Passersby stood on the Embarcadero and outside Mission Dolores, snapping cellphone photos as streetlights glowed. ‘Ace’s will be closed today due to the apocalypse,’ a local sports bar told customers on Instagram.”
It’s been that kind of year. While we have all been transfixed by the pandemic and the American descent into political chaos fueled by its own president, the planet is still warming and California has borne the consequences as much as any corner of the world. The state is burning in part because millions of dead trees have been killed by years of drought. Stir in zombie couples setting off pyrotechnics at gender reveal parties and you have an apocalyptic recipe at your fingertips.
“The sun-smothering haze,” Wick wrote, “didn’t originate from any one fire; it’s the result of myriad fires burning across Northern California and the Sierra Nevada.”
And California is merely the worst of it. Parts of Oregon, Colorado and other states are also burning. The update I received from my sister Jeanne Dennison in Colorado did not sound much better.
“When we were in Granby the sun was bright red due to the fires on the western slope (of the Rockies.) The last couple of weeks firefighters have been battling a huge fire west of Fort Collins that has now dipped down into the northern edges of Rocky Mountain National Park. The smoke is so thick we often get warnings for anyone with a respiratory illness to stay inside with windows and doors closed. We can barely see the mountains most days.
“Then ash started falling Sunday — it looked like big snowflakes. Cars were covered with a thick layer of big chunks of ash.”
Colorado caught a break when temperatures plummeted from 101 degrees Fahrenheit in Longmont Monday to 38 Tuesday, with mixed snow and rain. Closer to the mountains they got six inches of snow and up to two feet at higher elevations, enough to smother the some of the fires.
California had no such luck. Earlier in the week, Wick described the dramatic rescue of 200 people from an isolated recreational paradise called the Mammoth Pool Reservoir. “Think ponderosa pines, cedars and a big, blue body of water, tucked in a steep, narrow valley high in the Sierra National Forest…
“It became the setting of a nightmare on Saturday afternoon, when the fast-moving Creek fire blocked the only route out and trapped hundreds of vacationers.”
Wick quotes Saul Gonzalez, who made the trip to Mammoth Pool with his buddies for the annual Labor Day camping trip. Gonzalez had noticed what rangers said was a harmless fire in the distance, but by 3:30 in the afternoon, they were out on a pontoon boat in the water when they could see the orange glow of the fire on the mountain ridges. By 4:30 they were packing up camp and heading back to the dock, but everything was torched, “left to right, north to south, all the mountains.
At the boat launch, a mass of people waited, trying to figure out what to do. Gonzalez discovered that the fire had torched through the parking lot, burning up his Toyota Tacoma. Authorities organized a rescue using large Chinook helicopters from the National Guard to perform a giant night airlift amid fire and smoke, with the injured taken out first.
This time, the airlift worked. Next time, they might not be so lucky. The California fires have already burned a record number of acres, and the “real” fire season isn’t supposed to start until next month.
In the midst of this holocaust, with the state’s chaotic electrical power grid in jeopardy and many counties still in lockdown because of the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that he had “no patience” with climate-change deniers.
That would include the president, who yanked the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement almost as soon as he took office. Joe Biden has promised to reinstate it if he should win the election (and if Donald Trump leaves office peacefully, without attempting to trigger a civil war) but four critical years have been lost already, with the federal government in one of the world’s two largest polluters actively and aggressively promoting increased emissions.
If you want to know where all this leads, keep an eye on California. For now we are safe in our cool, damp corner of the world, but that can change with breathtaking speed. We are all a bit like the campers at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, zipping around on our jet skis and paying little or no attention – until it’s too late.