It’s been a couple of decades since we started hearing about how climate change would impact the planet and hence, the creatures living on it. Ice would melt, seas would rise and extreme weather would get more extreme: hotter, colder, windier, wetter, dryer.
I accepted the science modeling how human activities were altering the climate, seeing increasing evidence of that year after year. But as a first-world denizen only likely to be kicking around the planet for a couple more decades, I assumed the biggest impact on me personally would be minor nuisances like higher air-conditioning bills. I didn’t anticipate that privileged folks like me would find ourselves on the front lines of climate change. But here we are.
Northern Californians are accustomed to long dry summers, but this year, we don’t just have drought, we have “exceptional drought.” The Russian River, the primary water source here in Sonoma County, is drying up. Conservationists are scooping up trout and salmon and trucking them off to locations they hope will retain enough water for them to survive.
Since they’re not doing the same for us humans, officials here in the town of Healdsburg are hoping we can limp along until rain comes again — which likely won’t be until October or November — with a mandatory 40% cut in water use for homes and business. Lawns, that classic symbol of American pride and prosperity, are turning brown wherever you look. And if they’re not, call the city to rat on your wastrel of a neighbor.
The hot, dry conditions in much of the west are accelerating wildfires at a horrifying rate. For instance, as of 2019, four of the five largest fires in California took place over the past 10 years, which was scary enough. But in 2020, four of the five biggest wildfires in state history happened in that year alone.
I’ve evacuated three out of the past four years, but I shouldn’t complain, since I’m one of the lucky ones. My sister and brother-in-law lost their home and everything in it during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. My nonagenarian aunt had to flee that same fire in the middle of the night after staff at her senior community left residents, including those with disabilities and dementia, to fend for themselves as flames raced toward them. My father, who’s even older, has been evacuated in the middle of the night twice to escape two other fires. Every time I visit him — still a novelty since they only recently opened his community up to vaccinated visitors — the massive burn scars on the surrounding hills remind me of just how close last year’s Glass Fire came. My ex-partner wasn’t so lucky. That same fire devoured the spread we once lived on together, taking his home; the surrounding acres of woods and meadows; and Kylie, a sweet German shepherd who ran off in panic as the flames closed in.
As human beings who presumably can learn lessons from what we observe, my neighbors and I have taken some precautions, made some plans. We clear brush on our properties, pack go bags, map out escape routes. But even locales with more concrete than trees can be burnt off the map, as we saw in 2017, when a wind-driven wildfire jumped a four-lane highway to take out a trailer park and a supermarket. And we can’t know in advance which escape routes might be cut off by approaching fire, how much notice we’ll have, and how many others will be trying to flee when we are.
We don’t like to admit it, but in truth, my neighbors and I are no match for the relentless capriciousness of wildfire. When fire danger spikes, we are less like people with agency and options, more like deer: nervous, sniffing the air, always ready to flee.
Some local officials are better than others, but many are only paying lip service to improving the situation while continuing to make things worse. Why are some of us letting our lawns go brown while others are green lighting new developments, including those of obscene scale? The most egregious is an exclusive (and absurdly expensive) resort erected on the periphery of what had been my favorite local hike, though it’s now marred by the beep of bulldozers clearing the way for more of the excrescences that make up the compound. If current homes and businesses are cutting their water consumption by nearly half to try to last thorough the long dry season, how can we provide water for these new complexes? Tourists paying $1,200 a night are going to splash around in their roomy bathtubs and indoor/outdoor showers, not rush through truncated ablutions under low-flow nozzles like us locals.
One of the new developments going up in Healdsburg’s ever-expanding outskirts is called Enso, a community for seniors organized by the San Francisco Zen Center. It will likely attract wonderful, spiritual (and well-off) people. But idyllic as the place sounds, where are they going to get the water for all the planned shade trees? And are meditation and chanting calming enough when the air is choked with smoke and a shift in the wind would bring flames your way?
Apparently the word Enso denotes infinity and enlightenment. But when it comes to climate change, enlightenment requires recognition that the resources of the planet are not infinite. And it’s beyond time we started living that way.
The new developments aren’t just reckless, they’re delusionary. The climate crisis is stripping away some of our first-world privileges — even new-age Neros hoping to fiddle while California burns are going to have to face up to that. Addressing the climate emergency playing out here and all over the world requires bold action. Action that will disrupt business as usual, depriving many of us of things we’ve taken for granted. Because the biggest thing we’ve taken for granted — Mother Nature — is growing louder and louder as she tells us she will be ignored no longer.
Maria Behan is a Healdsburg-based writer and editor and a member of Indivisible Healdsburg. If you’d like to work locally to address the global climate crisis, email IndivisibleHealdsburg@gmail.com to join the Climate Action Team.