Last month, I wrote a piece, "My Extreme World and (Un)Welcome to It," about the shock of finding myself in what might be thought of as World War III, or perhaps World War(m) III; that is, already living in a country experiencing unbelievably extreme weather. July had just been declared the warmest month ever recorded in human history. And that was before Tennessee experienced historically record-breaking rainfall and flooding; the Caldor fire an unstoppable inferno of flames and smoke descended on Lake Tahoe; and Hurricane Ida swept across the ever hotter waters of the Gulf of Mexico, another result of climate change, suddenly powering up from a category 1 to a category 4 hurricane to blast New Orleans with 150 mile per hour winds. (Amid sweltering end-of-summer heat there, forget air conditioning, tap water, or refrigerators for possibly weeks to come.) And then it even came north to clobber New York City and the Northeast.
I started that mid-August piece with the California mega-blaze, the Dixie Fire, one of 100 across the West at the time. It was sweeping through northern parts of that state and making headlines nationally. (Weeks later, as I write this, it's still blazing, having burned more than 800,000 acres of land.) It had essentially obliterated a small town, Greenville, where I had spent time in the 1970s. As I wrote, "Admittedly, I hadn't been there for 46 years, but old friends of mine still live (or at least lived) in the town of Greenville, California, and now" well, it's more or less gone, though they survived."
That put me back in touch with my old pal, journalist Jane Braxton Little, who's written today's vivid TomDispatch piece on what it feels like to be a climate refugee. (Her house, in fact, survived in devastated Greenville, though her office elsewhere in town was left in ashes.) You may know climate refugees, too, if, for instance, you happen to be friends with someone who fled New Orleans as Hurricane Ida approached (and whom the governor of that state has begged not to return home yet). Or maybe you have a friend among the tens of thousands of people who had to flee the Lake Tahoe area as the devastating Caldor Fire bore down on them. It's long been clear that, on a planet where someday whole regions may become uninhabitable, such refugees, in the tens or hundreds of millions, will become the everyday reality of our world. Consider, then, Little's account and take a deep breath. It could be you or me next. Tom
The Dixie Fire Disaster and Me
Can My Town Rebuild After Losing It All?
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, generating around 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 a fire burning on the ground near the base of that tree. By evening, that micro-blaze had exploded to 1,000 acres.
Over the next 14 days what came to be known as the Dixie Fire whipped up one side canyon and down another, driving residents out of the town of Indian Falls and incinerating their homes. It demolished Canyon Dam at the southern end of Lake Almanor. The inhabitants of the towns of Crescent Mills, then Greenville, and soon after Taylorsville fled. Some of us returned for a night or two, only to heed the sirens blaring from our cell phones mandating another evacuation. Believe me, we left in a panic: pizza parlors with dough still rising; beauty salons with hair littering the floor; offices with phones ringing. We fled on whatever roads remained open to wherever we could find housing or friends willing to take us in.
On August 4th, we watched from our separate hells as a 40,000-foot cloud the color of bruised flesh collapsed over the ridge west of Greenville. It was soon hurling flaming branches and red-hot embers down the mountainside, torching trees as it roared into town. We were transfixed by horror, snatching previously unimaginable images from Facebook, chasing down Twitter links, and trying to make sense of the devastation evolving on infrared maps.
We were witnessing Greenville's near-obliteration. The Dixie Fire would thunder right down Main Street with its Western false fronts and tarnished Gold Rush charm. The 150-year-old warehouse converted to a museum years ago flamed up in a blaze of black-and-white photos, historic logging tools, and the genealogy of generations of the Mountain Maidu, the local Native American tribe. Fire gutted the brick-walled Masonic Lodge and the Way Station, our only local watering hole. Much of the town we had fled burned to the ground.
Hotter and Drier
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