It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m pretty sure my little sister hasn’t gotten the gift I mailed her yet. I waited too long to send it to her, because I simply wasn’t sure if she’d be there to get it, or if she would receive it and then have to leave it behind.
She lives in the path of the Thomas Fire, a raging wildfire burning large swathes of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties on the southern California coast.
As I write this, the conflagration is on track to be California’s second largest wildfire since records started being kept in 1932. It has the potential to become the largest; officials don’t expect full containment until into January.
Thousands of people have left their homes in mandatory evacuation zones, and hundreds have returned to find those homes in ruin, despite the determined efforts of more than 8,500 firefighters.
My sister knows people, farmers, whose crops are gone. She has been in a voluntary evacuation zone once already and has been ready to go for the last three weeks, just in case the flames come rolling down the foothills that ring her city. They’re one of the reasons she loves living there; the scenic hiking trails, with ocean views, are beautiful.
But she also talks about how dry they’ve been lately, those wooded paths creeping up the sides of the steep coastal hills. Santa Barbara is entering a seventh year of drought, even as drought conditions for the majority of the state were alleviated by rain last winter. It rained in Santa Barbara, too, but not enough, and not a single drop of precipitation has fallen in months. December is supposed to be the start of the rainy season, but the rain hasn’t come. All that dry land offers plenty of fuel for the flames.
The fact is, our climate is changing. Of the 20 biggest California fires since 1932, based on acres burned, 14 have occurred since 2002, and six of those were in the last six years.
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In this year of devastating hurricanes, in the more frequent floods here in the Midwest, in the reshaping of our weather systems in myriad ways, we can see the impacts of climate change all around us. Last year was the second warmest year on record for the continental United States, and the Arctic is experiencing its second warmest year in 1,500 years, after 2016.
A common argument against making the necessary changes to slow climate change is the cost. We can’t afford the sacrifices it would take, some politicians argue. Yet people in California and Puerto Rico and Texas are sacrificing now, and the cost, both financial and in human life, has been tremendous.
My sister texted me the other day, showing a photo of the air filtration mask everyone in town is wearing to deal with the oppressive smoke. “Is this how things are going to be now?” she asked.
Will we have to worry, year after year, about floods, and fires, and increasingly devastating storms? When we rebuild, will it be only to watch our cities and homes get swept away again?
I’m not trying to be dramatic. I’m just wondering, as thousands of firefighters skip Christmas with their families to work to save lives and homes, if we’re willing to do that same kind of work. As we prepare to celebrate New Year’s Eve, what resolutions will we make?
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