The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My father’s library will likely survive the fires, but the California of my youth is gone

Firefighters battle to protect the Reagan Library from the Easy Fire in Simi Valley, Calif., on Wednesday. (Mark Ralston/Afp Via Getty Images)

As I write this, thousands of people a few miles from me are still evacuated because of the Getty Fire, which erupted in the predawn hours Monday. A new fire this morning, in Simi Valley, is encircling the Reagan Library. In Northern California, the Kincade Fire has burned more than 76,000 acres. People have lost their homes, lives are at risk and the loss of wildlife is incalculable.

And several other fires are burning. I grew up here; I’m not a stranger to fires, although in recent years they have become apocalyptic. When I was a child, my parents owned a ranch inland from Malibu. There were years when a wildfire would scorch parts of it — fields reduced to ash would stand in stark contrast to groves of oak trees and grassy hills that had remained untouched. My father took me out to one of those burned fields months after the fire and showed me how green shoots were popping up through the ash and dust. Life always finds its way back, he said.

In 1961, when the Bel Air Fire ignited and quickly got out of control, my school was evacuated shortly before it burned to the ground. I remember driving away in the school bus and looking out the back windows at a wall of flame moving closer. We almost had to evacuate our home that night; my parents stayed awake with the cars packed, keeping an eye on the television reports and plumes of smoke just over the hill.

Now, this morning, I’m watching the television as flames climb up toward the library that holds my father’s life story, the place where my parents are buried.

But this yearly devastation of fires in California was not always the norm. Life has changed here — the climate, for one thing — and I miss how this state once was.

Scientists are cautious about attributing any weather event solely to climate change, but I wonder if the California of my childhood is gone for good.

We used to have winters when it would rain for days and days; there would be thunderstorms at night that would sometimes last for an hour. My brother and I would climb into our parents’ bed, along with the dog, and hide under the covers when loud thunderclaps rattled the windows. After the rains, hillsides were so green they looked like paintings. In the wildest places, the grasses grew long and rippled in the wind. Watching them was hypnotic. Now, when they do arrive, they are a news story.

We had a version of autumn, too — not as spectacular as back east — but we had crisp breezes and chilly nights. The Santa Ana winds would come, but they didn’t last for long, and there was never a time when it seemed like half the state was on fire.

It would rain sometimes in the summer, and there would be weeks in June when fog drifted in from the ocean to blanket Los Angeles. Neither of these are dependable patterns now.

California is, of course, not the only region that is being affected by climate change. But it’s the one I’m thinking about now, because it’s my home, and it’s on fire.

When President Trump took office, we were already running out of time to save this Earth. He has not just stalled any future efforts, he has reversed the progress that was made, proving that his cruelty is not just limited to human beings, it spreads out to the entire planet. He has called climate change a hoax; he has even called it bull----. He has made absurd comments about raking forests to prevent fires and makes it a point to boycott any global meeting on climate change. He is dangerous on so many fronts, but it’s important that we look at the danger he poses to this fragile blue ball we call Earth.

But Trump is only part of the story. Generations of neglect and greed have altered the balance of our planet, set us on a path to a future that’s frightening. I’m one of millions of people who grieve over the landscape of their home states, over what that landscape has turned into and what has been lost. Whether from floods or hurricanes or fires, we are left staring at the damage inflicted by our past lack of concern for protecting the Earth.

As of now, the buildings that hold my father’s legacy are untouched by flames. But we all have a legacy in this life. Putting America on the path of trying to save this Earth would be a good one for all of us to aspire to. Electing a leader who sees that as his or her legacy is more important than ever.

Read more:

Patti Davis: People keep trying to steal my father’s identity. It will never work.

Megan McArdle: California has difficult choices to make. Its politicians keep avoiding reality.

The Post’s View: California shows the difficulties of hardening the nation to climate change

The Post’s View: Trump points fingers while California burns

Lou Cannon: In California, there’s always a next fire