by Ruby Liles
California is on fire, and if we as a nation don’t get our act together, it won’t be for the last time.
While I rolled out of bed this past Saturday, irrationally upset at whatever force of nature made it just slightly too cold to wear my usual shorts and sweatshirt combo, thousands across the entire state of California were forced to attempt to gather what personal belongings they could and scramble to evacuate before flames could overtake their cars, homes, places of worship, and entire neighborhoods.
White Station High School English teacher (and former WSHS student of Ms. Goodman), Molly Oster, attended Pepperdine University in Malibu and can personally attest to this sense of dread and panic. “Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, Malibu — these are all places I lived, shopped, and ate at restaurants. I have friends who live in these places. My college friend’s husband with whom I also went to college is LAFD, so we get periodic updates on him. He’s exhausted, but out there fighting. Yesterday he got to go back to his home with his three small children.”
From all the way in Memphis, the terror is hard to imagine. Oster recounts, “Sometimes people get one hour to decide what they want to take with them. A police officer comes to their door and says ‘mandatory evacuation’ and you look at your house, knowing it might not be there when you return. What do you take? People think LA traffic is bad on a regular day? Try during evacuations. Some roads and freeways are already closed. You may not have an idea of where to go. It’s probably 3 AM. Oh, and the fire just ‘jumped’ the freeway you were considering. Not to mention you are in a metal container filled with flammable liquid while escaping fire. Should I throw some scared and crying kids in the backseat to make it more stressful? What about the fact that you can’t turn on the car’s AC because there’s ash raining down and it’s not safe to breathe? That’s just the first few hours. If people come back and have lost their homes — there’s an entirely different layer of loss and grief to deal with.”
The barrier of the TV screen does any tragedy no justice, especially when we, the consumers, feel it is constantly flashing between one fire to the next hate crime to the next polar ice cap melting to the next string of unwanted election results. But the depth of fear and damage countless Americans are currently being subjected to warrants more than a second’s glance before re-occupying oneself with “bigger issues.” Thousand Oaks, still grieving from the fatal shooting on Wednesday night, was forced to convert a reunification center set up for public safety after the shooting into an evacuation center which now houses the Californians who cannot afford to rebuild the property they lost in this disaster. “Thousand Oaks had two nights of no sleep because one night was the Thousand Oaks shooting and then in the wee hours of the next morning they had to evacuate,” says Oster. The scope to this suffering is almost unimaginable.
Yet year after year, it seems California faces larger, deadlier, and more cataclysmic fires. California’s burn-prone environment alone doesn’t account for this alarming increase. As a response to this national crisis, the President disrespectfully and callously blamed of the loss of 80 American lives thus far on “gross mismanagement” of state forests via Twitter. Oster points out, “Before he criticized California and blamed them for their own fires, threatening to take away funding on Saturday, and suddenly today supports California firefighters and FEMA. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just support the states that support you if you are going to be a leader.” It’s evident that something larger is at play — there are no forests in the city of Malibu, which was evacuated on Saturday as the Woolsey fire burned towards the ocean. The natural variations in weather and environment represented by California have only been amplified by climate change.
The state of California is on the tail end of a seasons-long drought, which when coupled with warmer temperatures and lack of rainfall has dried out most of California’s crops, creating more fuel for fire. The state and the nation will only see more frequent and more destructive wildfires if America continues to be one of the world’s biggest consumers of fossil fuels, adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and further amplifying California’s natural weather variations. Political progress in allocating some of California’s budget towards thinning forests, cutting brush, and setting controlled burns will only go so far—- it takes an administration and a nation that accepts science for science and truly seeks to secure the blessings of liberty — and of our environment — to ourselves and our posterity.
Julia Olsen is an attorney currently representing 20 young people (ages eleven to 22) in their suit against the federal government for denying them the right to a stable and safe climate. Olsen says, “This case is about the federal government, for more than five decades, creating a dangerous climate situation for young people and for all future generations.” One should hope that the notion that children should not have to sue their government for their right to be alive in 2030 would transcend any attempt to conflate the issue of climate change with a partisan topic for debate.
California is very clearly representing the climate crisis the entire world can expect to face if nothing is done soon. In the meantime, Oster provides some ways we as Memphians can help California right now.
“Find the organizations or local officials who are supporting those in need and assist them. Find out what you can donate or send from Amazon or another store. I know at least dozens of upperclassmen at Pepperdine who live off campus lost everything. The University set up a fund to help deal with the back-to-back crises the community is dealing with, considering they also lost a student in the Thousand Oaks shooting. If funds aren’t being appropriately allocated at the national level, then we need to get our representatives involved. It doesn’t matter what state someone is in, we should want to help our fellow Americans. Or fellow humans.”