Don Rogers: In case of fire …
Somewhere in the stillness each dawn a lone generator lowed.
Green grass had budded alongside roads and underfoot in yellow fields after a rain a couple of weeks before. Temperatures ran cool and humidity relatively high, up to 50% by morning. Sunsets were coming early now, earlier by the day.
But one night a chime might have tinkled with a puff before falling silent again. Then another puff, boughs swaying this time, in a pattern lasting perhaps three hours under a sky all the more striking with the power shut off.
Maybe it was enough to nudge a fire creeping and crackling in leaves and detritus, charring a low-lying bush with enough dead in it. Except for the forecast, the kind of cleansing ground fire we should want.
The Weather Service had predicted strong winds, and maybe they arrived somewhere — gusts were reported in the Bay Area and higher up the Sierra outside PG&E’s network where the lights were … on. But not here, nowhere around here. Not through two episodes of shutoffs, the second more widespread despite the rain, the green grass shooting up, our foothills becalmed.
Last fall. And fall the year before that. This was why. The reasoning was compelling. Eighty-six lives lost in a place called Paradise. Twenty-two homes burned down in western Nevada County.
How soon we forget as we throw out our thawing frozen food, forego our showers, wait endlessly at Robinson in Nevada City, the only gas station around still pumping. All the while penning poison letters in our heads: PG&E really, truly sucks.
Climate change didn’t cause the company to cut the power to so much of northern California. No, this new normal was a business decision involving neglect, politics, liability, bankruptcy. Basically, a result of all too human failing and decades of well-documented greed trumping safety among the company’s higher echelons.
Overgrowth and overpopulation across land with a fire ecology long before the Industrial Age, well, that’s a whole ’nother thing. Warming is only the cherry on top, the last straw.
Fire season didn’t just begin yesterday, either, as some who only months ago declared these seasons no longer ended had taken to yammering lately, at the tail of a cool, relatively quiet one so far. Fresh green growth underfoot belies such silly contentions. But fall’s fitful winds will have the last word, always, and there’s yet reason for concern.
Neither did climate change stop, or prove a Chinese hoax, because this year we were blessed with a deep snowpack and mild summer.
With astonishing geologic swiftness, the temperature has risen, the oceans grown more acidic, carbon emissions increased, species vanished, all hallmarks of some previous global extinctions. Our hand on Earth in this Anthropocene has become obvious to all but a few holdouts who just happen to share a particular ideology and are almost uniformly old, white, male. How uncanny it must seem to be the only ones with such instincts against the vast tide of evidence and human concern.
Still, alarmists not named Greta are hardly steering clear of planes, refusing their smart phones, taking buses instead of cars, making any true sacrifices for the sake of the climate. Even electric vehicles run mainly on fossil fuels. There’s no environmental reason for smugness at the charging station.
The moron in his pickup festooned with testicles and blowing out black smoke as he floors it is no better or worse than we more conscientious souls diligently choosing canvas over plastic, bringing our coffee mugs to Starbucks, bragging about whatever delightful country we flew to for vacation.
And of course big fires predate power lines and everyone alive today. The El Diablo and Santa Ana winds have fanned flames since before humans came along and will do so long after we’re gone.
The largest fires recorded in the lower United States were in 1871 and 1910: Wisconsin’s Peshtigo Fire (1.2 million acres, 2,500 deaths), and Montana-Idaho’s The Great Fire (3 million acres, 87 deaths). Alaska’s Taylor Complex in 2004 burned 1.7 million acres. Canada and Siberia have recorded even larger, much larger.
No doubt huge fires burned before we began keeping track and more often, more healthily. Tree rings among the giant sequoia going back 3,000 years show the highest frequency of wildfire between A.D. 800 and 1300.
But California burned the most in its history only last year, killing the most people, and endured the state’s largest recorded fire, the Mendocino Complex, at 495,000 acres. 2017 wasn’t far behind. These are recent, seared into memory.
At least until PG&E flips the switch on a cool, windless night and the weather stays that way.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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Xavier Becerra was a candidate for California’s Attorney General in November 2018. Previously he served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Los Angeles.