Whenever spring arrives, I am grateful for the new life that blooms and the green that spreads across the hills. I am also grateful that I can wake up to more warmth and sunshine after the greyness of winter and enjoy the blue skies before the Bay Area fog creeps in during summer. While my appreciation for the sunshine and clear skies remains, I have noticed a shift in how I see the fog. I find myself increasingly thankful for its presence and even the colder temperatures and humidity it brings. The changing of the seasons has become a period of increased concern for me, and many others, who know that warmer and drier conditions have heavy consequences that cannot be ignored — namely, the increased risk of fire danger. So when I venture outside in the cool, wet air and see homes and trees covered in a mantle of heavy fog, I recognize what a privilege it is to be able to breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the natural world steeped in vitality.
My transformed perspective comes from my increased awareness of the current climate reality, wherein weather disasters and temperature extremes shaped by climate change are affecting people across the world. The West Coast is no exception. Wildfires have already occurred across California this year, beginning in January when the state experienced unusually warm and dry conditions. Across the Western US, wildfires are starting earlier and ending later each year as the normal wildfire season shifts with severe consequences. Last year, the US underwent a record breaking wildfire season with over 10.2 million acres burned.
The devastation wrought by wildfires and impact of other recent climate disasters emphasize how we should take care of our natural resources and support measures which aim for lasting positive change. Individuals and their communities can take steps to support the earth and protect our surroundings. Over 80% of wildfires are human-caused, while factors linked to human-shaped climate change, such as dry conditions, drought, and increased heat can increase fire risk and duration. People can help decrease this risk by carrying out controlled burns along with clearing out vegetation that lies on forest floors and close to homes. I have already seen people taking action to decrease that risk in my community by reducing tree cover close to homes and ridding yards of plant matter that feeds fires. Such guidance encouraged by experts is hardly new: for thousands of years, Indigenous people in the US have understood and carried out controlled burns to support ecosystems, foster biodiversity, and protect land from uncontrolled fire spread. We can help preserve the resources of the future by honoring this process.
Looking ahead, we should also support policy changes to reduce the pace of hazardous global warming and address the shifts in climate and weather patterns brought on by human actions. The Biden administration has recently taken steps to regulate and reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a greenhouse gas, with potential positive outcomes that “would result in $283.9 billion in health and environmental benefits by the middle of the century by reducing climate-fueled wildfires, heat-related health problems and property damage from extreme weather events,” per the New York Times.
The impact of climate change is widespread and has the capacity to affect everyone. Yet not everyone is impacted equally by environmental issues and climate disasters. When it comes to wildfires, minority groups – especially Black, Hispanic or Indigenous communities – are more vulnerable compared to predominantly white communities. Millions are at risk due to lack of resources and economic opportunities which allow for adaptation and recovery in the face of emergency. While I am mindful that moves are being made to address climate change and its impacts on a local and national level, and that my community is trying to do its part to protect our environment, I am aware that more work still needs to be done to save lives, homes and natural surroundings and prevent further irreversible damage and loss.
Environmental justice is an integral part of this work. Cuts to planet-warming emissions have the capacity to benefit the very young, elderly, poor, disabled and Indigenous populations; all of whom are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Ultimately, it is important to not only appreciate our natural resources, but also to show our appreciation as we learn from, assist, and act on behalf of all communities. The steps we take as individuals and societies can benefit those most affected by climate change and simultaneously help us all to maintain a healthier world.
Photo credit: Golden Gate Parks Conservancy