Natalie Hanson is a reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record and a recent graduate of California State University at Chico.
Here in Butte County, Calif., the new normal is constant dread.
In past times, fall in Northern California meant leaves turning bright gold on Chico’s Esplanade, or enjoying the year’s first rainstorm in Bidwell Park under a rich canopy of drenched black walnut trees. The season would have been ushered in with long drives in Lassen Volcanic National Park or to see the Humboldt County redwoods.
That’s how we should have welcomed fall this year, too — not by waiting for orders to flee the county. We shouldn’t be watching ash rain from skies so thick with smoke that eyes water and heads ache, or sit helpless as precious forests are blackened across the state.
But after the Camp Fire in 2018, and the Bear Fire (now part of the North Complex Fire) this year, people in this part of California know our new reality is having a go-bag next to the bed. We are experts at keeping cellphones charged at all times, at taking photos of the contents of the entire apartment for insurance purposes, at packing the car early, and at religiously scrolling through the sheriff’s department and Cal Fire updates to see the latest maps and warnings.
As we try to plan, we’re besieged by the unknown. What if the hotels are packed? What if gas stations run out of fuel? Will Dad come with me if I tell him the warnings are dire? What if the animals get lost? Will insurance cover the actual cost of replacing what we lose?
And then there is another reality: As the Camp Fire taught us, not all warnings come in time. Crucial systems fail when they are tested. And all the precautions in the world are, tragically, sometimes not enough.
I’ve been sitting with these uncomfortable realities for a few years now — as a student here in Chico who has had to live with them, and as a journalist who must report on them. I’ve seen fleets of ambulances chase down Skyway Rd. from Paradise, Calif., as the sky darkened by the minute. I’ve been haunted by the ghost-town feel of a city emptied of its residents, many of whom held out as long as they could, watching for the telltale signs of nearing flames.
And when those flames subsided, I saw how what was left behind only exacerbated California’s other challenges. In Chico, the population that lives on the streets has been growing for years. The Camp Fire added thousands more to their ranks. Inequality, too, has been brought into stark relief. Those with insurance and wealth were able to rebuild their homes relatively quickly. Those who could not afford to rebuild, or to wait for settlement money from Pacific Gas and Electric, are left in trailer homes — and local authorities are even cracking down on those, imposing fines on refugees who didn’t get the right permits in time.
As the fires rage around us again this year, it looks like the entire West Coast will live this way — unless we start to change our response.
Generations of Californians have known that the cost of living near paradise is wildfire. This land is meant to burn. But the cost has grown so steep there can be no comparison with decades past — before entire towns went up in flames, before sweltering summers gave way to historic drought. There’s a difference between learning about climate change in class in 2015, when afterward I brushed fresh fall leaves from my car windshield, and talking about it in 2020, when I now brush cakes of ash off my car, wearing an N95 mask.
During the years in between, devastating wildfires became something of an annual ritual. So when I hear officials like U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R) and Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-3rd District) repeatedly dismissing climate change — even as local scientists warn of drought, rising temperatures and the importance of following indigenous land-stewardship principles — I’m filled with a mix of dread and deja vu.
Until we develop serious plans for tackling climate change, improving forestry management, maintaining our electrical infrastructure, improving our emergency-response systems and caring for our vulnerable populations — all of which have been neglected for far too long — this tragic cycle will continue. Far too many Californians living near rural areas will feel as I now do: like a trapped animal, surrounded by miles of trees pushed to the brink of drought on one side and many acres of dried brush on the other, waiting for it all to ignite.
Living in California today is a calculated risk. It requires balancing the delight of living among some of the country’s greatest natural wonders against the trauma of watching that natural beauty hunted by hungry flames. But there is only so long that even the most determined can withstand the constant terror. While many of us have had our dreams fulfilled by this state, few of us can keep up with this sad new normal for years to come.