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General News    H3'ed 12/14/21

Tomgram: Jane Braxton Little, Living Through the Dixie Fire

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This was certainly the year of the fires from the Turkish coast and the Greek Island of Evia to the American West. But it's also been the year of record-breaking floods sometimes, as in British Columbia and parts of the state of Washington, in the very same places that had earlier burned so devastatingly (releasing, by the way, yet more carbon into the atmosphere).

Yes, fires and floods have always been part of the human experience, but let's face it, this the fact that those fires have become so fierce they can actually make their own weather represents something breathtaking (or perhaps breath-taking-away) on this planet of ours.

Like British Columbia and Washington, California has been particularly hard-hit this year, amid a historic megadrought across parts of the West and Southwest. It's experiencing once unimaginable fires and conditions that should be frightening. In that state, more than four million acres burned in 2020 and another 2.5 million this year so far. To that sum, the Dixie fire, burning for more than three months, contributed almost a million acres, making it at least the second largest in the state's history. As it happens, an old friend of mine, journalist Jane Braxton Little, was home in Greenville, California, when the Dixie fire swept through that Gold Rush-era town and, as she wrote for TomDispatch in September, made her a climate refugee only briefly, but many of the rest of that town's inhabitants permanently.

Given the way the news functions in our world, we're always moving on to the next disaster, which makes it easy enough to forget that the last one is seldom truly behind us. Today, Little reminds us that such disasters and they are only going to grow worse as the planet continues to heat in such a record fashion aren't faintly passing events. Quite the opposite, they become the essence of life for those who live through them in a world where, by some estimates, the climate crisis could displace up to 1.2 billion people (yes, you read that figure correctly!) by 2050. With that in mind, take a moment to return to Greenville with Little and experience a world of destruction that just goes on and on and on. Tom

A Tour Guide to Hell on Earth, Small Town-Style
Climate Change, Up Close and Personal


Half a mile south of what's left of the old Gold Rush-era town of Greenville, California, Highway 89 climbs steeply in a series of S-turns as familiar to me as my own backyard. From the top of that grade, I've sometimes seen bald eagles soaring over the valley that stretches to the base of Keddie Peak, the northernmost mountain in California's Sierra Nevada range.

Today, stuck at the bottom thanks to endless road work, I try to remember what these hillsides looked like before the Dixie fire torched them in a furious 104-day climate-change-charged rampage across nearly one million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware. They were so green then, pines, cedars, and graceful Douglas firs mixed with oaks pushing through the thick conifer foliage in a quest for light and life. Today, I see only slopes studded with charred stumps and burnt trees jackstrawed across the land like so many giant pick-up-sticks.

Dixie did far more than take out entire forests. It razed Greenville, my hometown since 1975. It reduced house after house to rubble, leaving only chimneys where children once had hung Christmas stockings, and dead century-old oaks where families, spanning four generations, had not so long ago built tree forts. The fire left our downtown with scorched, bent-over lampposts touching debris-strewn sidewalks. The historic sheriff's office is just a series of naked half-round windows eerily showcasing devastation. Like natural disasters everywhere, this fire has upended entire communities.

Sadly, I have plenty of time to contemplate these devastating changes. I'm the first in a long line of vehicles halted by a burly man clad in neon yellow and wielding a stop sign on a six-foot pole. We motorists are all headed toward Quincy, the seat of Plumas County and its largest town. My mission is to retrieve the household mail, a task that would ordinarily have required a five-minute walk from my second-floor office to the Greenville Post Office. Now, it's a 50-mile round trip drive that sometimes takes four hours due to the constant removal of hazardous trees. I'm idling here impatiently.

Greenville still has a zip code, but the fire gutted the concrete-block building that was our post office. The box where I once received magazines, bills, and hand-decorated cards from my grandkids lies on its back, collecting ashes. Whoever promised that "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" would impede postal deliveries never anticipated the ferocity of the Dixie fire.

Few did. That blaze erupted in forests primed for a runaway inferno by a climate that's changing before our eyes. Temperatures worldwide are up 2.04 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901 and 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the United States since 1970. This year is California's driest in a century. Only 11.87 inches of rain or snow fell, less than half what experts deem average. Combine that with a century of forest management that suppressed natural fires and promoted the logging of large, more fire-resistant trees and these forests needed only a spark to erupt into a barrage of flames that swept from the Feather River Canyon to north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the equivalent of traveling from Philadelphia to New York City.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) almost certainly provided that spark, as company officials told the California Public Utilities Commission. Earlier, they had accepted responsibility for the deadly 2018 Camp fire, which destroyed the sadly named town of Paradise, and three other blazes. Those fires are the outsized products of corporate greed and a gross failure to maintain the company's electrical infrastructure.

PG&E's negligence comes at a time when a dramatically changing climate is wreaking havoc worldwide. For every victim of the Dixie fire, there are thousands who were hit last November by massive hurricanes in North and Central America, and hundreds of thousands who find themselves escaping rising seas in places like Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Global South. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in April, the number of people displaced by climate-change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million, most of them in poor countries and small island states.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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