There Are Now 52,000 Climate Refugees In Northern California
At 10.45am last Thursday I received a text from my friend Ben. “Kinda crazy around here today. A fire started up the hill in Paradise.”
By then I had already been driving south from Oregon for more than an hour -- I was headed to Chico, California, for bit of rest and relaxation. Little did I know that I was driving into ground zero of what was about to become the most destructive wildfire in California history.
I had known Ben for five or six years -- he’d lost his engineering job in 2014, and after stringing together a year of unsatisfying part-time work sold his home, reinvested the capital, and reinvented himself as an artisanal cider maker and cidery owner.
He relocated to Chico because his new business required large volumes of heirloom apples, found in the smaller orchards in the Sierra Nevada, California foothills. Many of these orchards date to the mid-1800s and were planted by pioneers and (gold rush) '49ers.
I continued driving south while Ben and his employee Eric planned to rent a flatbed truck to pick up several tonnes of apples from an orchard near Apple Hill. My plan was to spend two days helping at the cidery and one day ripping down granite-lined mountain bike trails in the Sierra foothills.
At 3pm while I was steeling myself for the last three hours of a seven-hour drive, I got another text.
"You're coming into a chaotic scene here. 35,000 people got evacuated from the foothills and now they are mostly in Chico. Traffic is horrendous. Hwy 99 is closed. I think you can come in off Hwy 32 from Interstate 5."
The scene was indeed chaotic. As I drove east in the dusk a sinuous ribbon of orange glowed on the hillside 30 kilometres away. Streams of headlights blurred together as rivers of cars passed me going west. In Chico most business that were able to had closed early to release their employees.
There was a pall both figurative and literal hanging over the town. Lines at petrol stations were 20 cars deep. Rumours were swirling about the cause of the fire.
Stories of harrowing escapes and tragic losses were beginning to circulate. Shelters had opened. Friends and neighbours were reaching out to friends and neighbours. Mostly people were asking questions and trying to understand what was happening.
I arrived at Ben's apartment around 7pm and, after greetings, hugs and mugs of cider we sat huddled around his laptop watching the local news.
The Camp Fire, which had started only 12 hours earlier, had now completely torched the town of Paradise and had hopscotched 10 miles down the foothills to the eastern Chico city limits.
Under threat of evacuation, Ben and I both agreed that I had picked the wrong weekend for a visit.
It's two days later, and I've returned to Oregon after cutting my trip short. Ben is safe, as is Chico.
Eric's home in Paradise is most likely gone, as are 7100 other homes and businesses. At least 42 people have died, and more than 220 are missing. In Northern California, some 52,000 people have been displaced.
According to most recent reports, Noble Orchards in Paradise, from which Ben sources some of his fruit, didn't survive the fire.
The Camp Fire rages on. It has spread to 125,000 acres and is only 30 percent contained. Full containment is not expected until the end of November despite more than 5100 people working directly on the fire.
It can be difficult to apportion blame in a tragedy like this. California is a fire-prone state and more and more people are choosing to live in fire-prone areas (or are forced to due to the high cost of living in the greater San Francisco Bay Area).
Despite the erroneous conclusions many will draw from President Trump’s recent tweets, which blamed the fire on "gross mismanagement of forests", it appears that this fire started on private land and may have been caused by problems with electrical transmission lines owned by a utility company.
But what's not difficult to understand is that the likelihood and severity of wildfires in fire-prone regions around the globe are only going to increase with the continued carbon emissions that drive global warming.
As we approach winter, California is suffering extremely dry conditions, with precipitation levels 20-30 percent below its seasonal average. As rain becomes more and more concentrated to the winter months, vegetation becomes thoroughly dried out throughout the rest of the year.
The result is a tinderbox.
In addition, California, an already hot state, is about 1-2 degrees Celsius warmer than it would be if climate change were not a factor, according to climate scientists. This dries out vegetation even more, creating perfect kindling conditions when fires are sparked.
The fact is, nine of California’s 10 biggest fires on record have occurred since the year 2000, and five of those from the year 2010. Two of those fires have happened this year, while the Camp Fire has now become the deadliest and most destructive on record.
I work as a faculty research assistant in a university laboratory, studying trace atmospheric gasses locked inside ice core samples from Greenland and Antarctica, dating back hundreds of thousands of years. From mapping ancient climates, scientists are able to get a very clear picture of how our earth’s climate has changed over time.
There is absolutely no doubt that since the onset of human-sourced carbon emissions, the planet is getting hotter, and from a geological perspective, the change is happening very very quickly.
If warming continues unchecked, catastrophic fires in places like California will sadly become more and more commonplace.
What's not difficult to understand is that climate change is real, that we are feeling its effects now, and that there are 52,000 displaced climate refugees in Northern California.