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Californians fleeing wildfires are talking about climate change like never before

A house is engulfed in flames during the CZU Lightning Complex fires on Sunday
A house is engulfed in flames during the CZU Lightning Complex fires on Sunday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California continues to burn, and it’s hard to focus on much else.

I’m guessing your news feed, like mine, has offered an endless stream of doomsday images and headlines: More than 1.4 million acres burned, at least seven dead and 136,000 people ordered to evacuate, even as weather conditions began to improve. More than 1,600 structures destroyed, mostly by the second- and third-largest fires in state history. Nearly 14,000 lightning strikes.

The numbers and facts can be overwhelming. Difficult to comprehend. They start to become meaningless.

To get a handle on what it all means, I called Anita Chabria.

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Anita is a Times staff writer based in the Sacramento Valley. She was on the front lines of the 2017 Tubbs fire, the 2018 Camp fire and the 2019 Kincade fire. This year she’s covering the LNU Lightning Complex fires. She’s learned to always bring a paper map because of all the times her GPS has lost signal on remote mountain roads where the smoke is so thick it’s hard to see.

“It’s like being on the moon,” Anita told me. “You go down these roads where all the trees are black and everything’s burned, but some of the utility poles are still standing and burning more slowly. It’s hot. I always have to wear boots because when you get out it’s hot on the ground. And propane tanks are popping. It is a little crazy at times.”

Anita and I spoke Monday afternoon as she prepared to go back into the field. She talked about what makes the current fire emergency so unprecedented, why California isn’t prepared to deal with this scale of devastation, and how people living through these disasters are thinking about climate change.

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Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Scroll down for the rest of this week’s news.

ME: You’ve covered a lot of big fires. What’s different about what’s happening right now?

ANITA: What’s striking about these fires is how quickly we went from nothing in California to our largest fire crisis in history. Just in the span of a couple days, we’ve seen 1.4 million acres burn. We just have never seen anything else like this.

And what’s becoming more and more clear is we do not have the resources to fight it. So our only goal right now is to protect people and property and infrastructure, and wait it out for cooler weather to help us get this under control.

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We have 14,000 firefighters out right now. I’ve heard people say we need three times that many folks just to start to get a handle on these things. We don’t have the equipment, we don’t have the engines, we don’t have the air power.

ME: What aren’t we doing right now that we would be doing if we had more resources?

ANITA: Normally you set a defensive line around the fire. Your goal is to ring the fire in and keep it from spreading. And you do that by sending hand crews to dig fire lines, bulldozers to dig fire lines. You literally circle the fire, and then you have a defensible perimeter.

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We don’t have enough people to set lines at all the fires. So that means our priority is not containing these fires from going farther like we normally would, it’s simply pushing them back from our most populated places, from the places where they’re going to do the most damage.

ME: That’s so depressing.

ANITA: We’ve just been incredibly lucky. I think what the firefighters don’t want to say out loud is that one good windstorm and we could lose total control of this. Right now, if there’s one blessing in this, [it’s that] Santa Cruz saw some high winds for a while, but we haven’t seen those gusting winds that blow it across the freeway and take it into the neighborhoods.

My little contribution to the world is when I talk to people in the evacuation centers, I always get their address, so if I’m near their home I can take a picture and tell them if it’s there or not. Because the anxiety for people is they’ve left and they have no idea if their house is there or not, and they can’t get through. But I can.

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ME: There’s been a lot of research showing how climate change is making these wildfire crises worse. Have you seen that in your reporting?

ANITA: Time and again this week, people have told me they are living through climate change.

I see it the most in the interviews I do with people in places like Sonoma County, who will tell me over and over again that when they were kids, it was wet this time of year. They remember it being so lush and so cool. And now, literally within one generation, they see they are living in a different climate than they grew up in, even though they’re in the same town.

I hear it from moms all the time. They’re in these towns where they grew up, and then they’re raising their kids there, but it’s not the same place that they grew up in, weather-wise. And that makes it not the same place fire-wise and safety-wise.

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ME: So often the narrative about climate is that it’s hard to get people to care, because it’s not their lived experience. It’s in the background, exacerbating existing crises. So it’s fascinating to me to hear about people who realize that climate change is happening to them.

ANITA: It wasn’t so much a discussion before, like with the Tubbs fire. But now everywhere I go, it comes up in the interviews. Because they aren’t just a community that has lived through fire. They’re a community that is living through perpetual trauma.

It’s not just that your house gets burned. It’s children being taken out of school, children whose safety is threatened, families that are having to flee in the middle of the night on an annual basis. That’s a horrible thing to grow up with, that’s a terrible sense of insecurity.

Then if you combine it with maybe not speaking the language or not being socioeconomically at the top, and you’re having to flee in the middle of the night when maybe you don’t own a car — the sense of safety of a whole generation growing up in these fire places is really compromised.

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ME: The people you’re having these conversations with — are they thinking about moving somewhere else?

ANITA: Absolutely. I talked to a woman in a story I recently did, her name is Harvest Echols. She grew up in Healdsburg. Actually, her dad and his siblings built a geodesic dome in the hills there. So she grew up very hippie. She’s in her 40s, and she has two kids.

They were evacuating in an RV when I spoke to them. Last October when they had to evacuate, it was a middle-of-the-night run to Sebastopol, where they found a hotel, went to bed, and a couple hours later there was pounding on their door because the hotel was in the fire zone now. And so they had to flee again. And she was just so traumatized on behalf of her kids that this time they’re not even waiting for the evacuation order. They bought an RV and they’re getting out of town. And she said she’s thinking about moving.

People are so tied to this region. It’s Northern California, we’re Californians. No one wants to go anywhere else, really. But a lot of people are talking about Oregon.

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ME: Have you seen anything in the course of your reporting that makes you optimistic we’re going to figure this stuff out as a state, and learn to live in a reality with bigger and more devastating fires?

ANITA: I do personally think that California has some of the best firefighters in the world, because they’re the most experienced, unfortunately. If there is a body of fire professionals that can handle this now and in the future, it is California’s firefighters. I haven’t met one of them that is not willing to to give their life to this fight.

What I hear over and over again from the experts is that we need to get our act together when it comes to the reality of fire. We prepare for earthquakes, we have earthquake drills. We build earthquake-proof buildings. We could rebuild fireproof buildings. We could treat fire the same way we treat other potential disasters where preparing for it is an expectation.

We need to up our game when it comes to living in those zones where the wilderness is coming into contact with our suburbs. There are things we can do to prepare for the reality that fire is going to come through. California just hasn’t fundamentally embraced that truth.

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***

After Anita and I spoke, she reported a heartbreaking story about three of the people killed by the LNU Lightning Complex. Mary Hintemeyer was talking with her son on the phone when she saw flames approaching her home, near Lake Berryessa, and realized she had to flee. But she didn’t make it. Neither did her boyfriend, Leo McDermott, or his son, Thomas.

“I can’t stress it enough, when you are told to evacuate, evacuate,” Hintemeyer’s youngest daughter said.

And now, here’s what else is happening around the West:

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TOP STORIES

An aerial view of an AES power plant, with its smokestacks rising near the shore in Redondo Beach.
An AES power plant, which is fueled with natural gas, has been the subject of controversy for decades in Redondo Beach.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California might let four gas-fired power plants stay open past the end of this year. In the first energy decision for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration following this month’s rolling blackouts, state officials are poised to extend the shutdown deadline for four gas plants along the Southern California coast. Here’s my story on next week’s vote. (As a reminder, there are clean energy technologies that can help keep the lights on in the absence of gas plants; here’s another story I did listing some ideas.)

Pacific Gas & Electric spent an entire decade delaying and watering down regulations designed to prevent utility-sparked wildfires. That’s the key finding of this devastating investigation from PBS’ “Frontline” and public radio station KQED, which also implicates Southern California Edison and the California Public Utilities Commission. There’s been no evidence that this month’s fires were ignited by utility wires. But power lines have caused several of California’s most devastating blazes.

The Trump administration killed a major clean energy study. I’d been wondering what happened to the final version of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s much-hyped Seams study, which found that the country could reduce emissions and save billions of dollars by linking up its Western and Eastern power grids. Now Peter Fairley reports for the Atlantic and InvestigateWest that political appointees buried the study when they realized its recommendations would be bad news for the coal industry.

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CALIFORNIA BURNING

California doesn’t have enough firefighters to deal with the amount of land that’s burning. Yes, it’s inspiring to read about rural towns setting up their own FEMA-like response and banding together to protect their homes, as Susanne Rust and Alex Wigglesworth report for The Times. But these kinds of measures shouldn’t be necessary. We also shouldn’t have emergency alert systems marred by coding errors, outdated maps and other glitches, a problem my colleague Joseph Serna delves into here.

Lightning-sparked blazes might be the “fires of hell,” but that doesn’t mean they’re a new phenomenon. In a story that reminds us how short and selective our collective memory can be, The Times’ Bettina Boxall points out that 1987, 1999 and 2008 all featured massive fires ignited by hundreds or thousands of lightning strikes. This reminds me of what Anita Chabria said earlier: For far too long, Californians have failed to accept the fundamental truth that this place is built to burn.

Against an orange sky, smoke hangs low in the air amid the trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Smoke hangs low in the air at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Saturday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The ancient redwoods at Big Basin Redwoods State Park appear to have survived. A fire that tore through California’s oldest state park destroyed the headquarters and other historic facilities, as Stuart Leavenworth reported for The Times. But in a rare bit of good news this week, the AP’s Martha Mendoza and Marcio Jose Sanchez hiked the beloved Redwood Trail and confirmed that most of the ancient redwoods, including the tree known as Mother of the Forest, withstood the flames.

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POWER STRUGGLES

In a win for environmentalists and Alaska Native communities, the Trump administration rejected a massive copper and gold mine. If you’re confused as to how that might have happened, my colleague Richard Read has answers: Donald Trump Jr., who has fished in the Bristol Bay area near the proposed Pebble Mine, called for the project to be stopped. So did two donors to President Trump. Just one month ago, the administration had signaled it would approve the mine.

Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke at the Democratic National Convention via cellphone video as he visited fire-ravaged areas. The governor slammed Trump for threatening to strip the state’s federal fire-prevention funding and trying to block its clean-car standards, as Phil Willon reports for The Times. The Democratic convention as a whole featured more discussion of climate change than ever before; more details here from Timothy Cama and Nick Sobczyk at E&E News.

There’s a last-minute proposal in Sacramento to pay for wildfire response and climate resiliency projects. As the legislative session nears its end, Taryn Luna reports for The Times that some lawmakers want to extend an existing fee on electricity bills. The money would go toward $500 million in immediate measures such as training new firefighters and $2.5 billion in longer-term priorities such as prescribed burns, forest restoration, cooling centers, evacuation systems and disaster planning.

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AROUND THE WEST

Sage grouse face a new threat: Kanye West. I wish I could tell you this one was a joke, but dear reader, it is not. The billionaire musician-turned-presidential candidate bought a sprawling ranch in Wyoming and is building out the property in key sagebrush habitat, threatening the iconic dancing bird known as sage grouse and other at-risk species, as Jackie Flynn Mogensen reports for Mother Jones. The Kanye situation “illustrates how a lack of protection under the Trump administration — which has aggressively sought to dismantle safeguards for the species — has further threatened the already vulnerable bird,” Mogensen writes.

California is deeply reliant on out-of-state power plants. This was one of the causes of the recent rolling blackouts; it was hot all over the West, so there was less excess energy for the Golden State to import, as Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Some experts have also wondered whether market manipulation may have contributed to the power shortages, per the Union-Tribune’s Jeff McDonald, although the evidence for that is not yet clear.

One of my favorite things about Southern California is the dry heat. Even when I lived in Palm Springs, extreme temperatures were (relatively) bearable because there was little humidity. Alas, climate change sucks. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Deborah Sullivan Brennan reports that global warming is bringing not only hotter heat waves to the region but also more humid ones.

What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

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ONE MORE THING

Last night I had the opportunity to host a conversation with the clean water activist Erin Brockovich — made famous by the film that bears her name — about her new book, “Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It.” It was a fascinating discussion, part of The Times’ Ideas Exchange series, and you can watch it here.

Erin and I talked about the crisis of contaminated drinking water across the U.S., the many ways climate change is affecting our water, and the still-unfinished business of cleaning up the chemical infamously used by PG&E in the town of Hinkley, Calif.

Many thanks to Erin, and to the folks who organized the event.

I’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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