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The Dixie Fire disaster and me

1 7 18
24.09.2021

GREENVILLE, CA — At 10 a.m. on July 22nd, I interviewed a New York University professor about using autonomous robots, drones, and other unmanned devices to suppress structural and wildland fires. I sent the interview to an online transcription service, walked down the steps of my second-floor office and a block to the Greenville post office, where I mailed a check to California Fair Plan for homeowners' fire insurance. I then drove 25 miles to a dental appointment. I was lucky to make it home before burning debris closed the roads.

That night I became a climate refugee, evacuated from my house thanks to the Dixie Fire. Since then, it's scorched a landscape nearly the size of Delaware, destroyed 678 houses and decimated several communities in Indian Valley, where I've been for 46 years. One of them was Greenville, California, a town founded in the Gold Rush era of the nineteenth century, where I happen to live. I never imagined myself among the 55 million people worldwide whose lives have already been upended by climate change. Maybe no one does until it happens, even though we're obviously the future for significant parts of humanity. Those of us who acknowledge the climate disaster — especially those who write about it — may be the last to picture ourselves fleeing the catastrophes scientists have been predicting.

Climate change should come as no surprise to any of us, even in Greenville, one of four communities in rural Plumas County tucked into the mountains of the northern Sierra Nevada range, 230 miles northeast of San Francisco. No one would call most of us progressive. We're a social mishmash of loggers, miners, and ranchers, many of whom strongly supported Donald Trump (despite a disparate population of aging hippies living among us). We squabble over water ditches and whose insurance should cover which parade. We picked to death a solar-power project and took five years to decide on a design for a community building. The town has been in decline since I moved there nearly half a century ago, slowly sinking into its dirt foundations.

Despite Greenville's insularity, we've had some inkling that the world is changing around us. Old-timers talk about the winters when so much snow fell that they had to shovel from second-story windows to get out of their houses. Last winter, we got less than three feet of snow. In the 1980s, a warm March storm flooded Indian Valley with melted snow that floated stacks of newly sawn lumber away from a local sawmill into a just-created lake. We all cheered as brazen cowboys lassoed bundles of two-by-fours and hauled them off in their pickup trucks.

In a megadrought-ridden West, precipitation currently is half the normal amount, making it prospectively the driest year since 1894. Today, such modest clues to a changing climate seem quaint indeed in the face of the evidence now bombarding California and the rest of the West. As in recent years, this summer's fires began breaking out here far earlier than the norm. Already 647 wildfires have burned 4.9 million acres of the West, an area three times the size of Rhode Island. In California, 31 new fires started on August 30th alone — and any significant rain or snow is undoubtedly still months away.

For me, as for the rest of us in Plumas County, the Dixie Fire delivered the reality of climate change in a raging fury that has forever changed our lives. It started July 13th in the Feather River Canyon, a 5,000-foot gorge that carries water to more than 25 million Californians through the State Water Project. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has built a series of power stations here that dammed the former trophy-trout stream and converted its cascading energy into electricity, generatingaround 15% of California's hydropower. At approximately seven o'clock that Tuesday morning, a hydroelectric facility lost power at Cresta in the lower Feather River Canyon. Officials later reported a "healthy green tree" leaning perilously against a conductor on a pole with........

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