Driving along the outer fringes of Santa Barbara’s southern county, my friend and I plunged into the storm. Squinting at the road ahead as torrential downpour consumed my car, mountainous black clouds loomed in the distance. Yet unlike most rain clouds, they grew from the Earth, cascading upwards in a giant plume that enveloped the starry night sky. Because this wasn’t rain, and those weren’t rainclouds.
Santa Barbara, California has received just a few days of rainfall this winter – of those days, most were in the form of ash, pouring from the sky as the record-breaking Thomas Fire engulfed Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. This was the unique storm my friend and I faced that hazy night, as we drove southbound along the U.S. 101 freeway toward Ventura.
We’d heard you could see “the glow” of the Thomas Fire from the southern portion of Santa Barbara County. Being curious college students on a determined mission to procrastinate studying for fall finals, this idea made for a quick and easy decision. So there we were, driving towards the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, scarves wrapped around our eager faces as ash chattered against my windshield – eyes scouring the black horizon for some majestic, candlelit ambiance.
But giant wildfires don’t produce a delicate, mesmerizing “glow;” they look more like a raging ball of terror, which is exactly what we encountered as quiet darkness suddenly erupted into a savage inferno of blood-red skies and flames. Turning the corner at Bates Road has always been my favorite part of the 101 freeway; the towering Santa Ynez mountain range bows in profound elegance to the queen of the coast, cliffs cascading into the Pacific Ocean. But on this night, the highlands framing Rincon were engulfed in soaring flames, transforming her majesty into a smoldering ruin.
It was enough to bring 2 girls driving in a car together to complete silence. We took the first exit and drove home.
Wildfires are a natural occurrence in Santa Barbara and southern California counties, intricately tied to the Chaparral biome that prevails in this Mediterranean region. Characterized by dense, woody shrubs and drought-resistant vegetation, Chaparral plant communities are highly adapted to fire-prone landscapes. While they provide important watershed protection and erosion control, they are also the leading fuel hazard in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, blanketing the surrounding Santa Ynez, Sierra Madre, and San Rafael Mountains. In short, California is destined to burn – Cal Fire has determined that “there are no ‘low’ hazard fuels in California” – our spectrum runs from “medium” to “very high.” And in recent years, we’ve teetered closer to “very high.”
Santa Barbara in particular has an extensive history of wildfires. Prior to the Thomas Fire, the county experienced 7 major wildfires in a span of 10 years, that burned thousands of acres, threatening large populations and destroying hundreds of structures. A 2011 fire risk map included in a county report paints Santa Barbara in dark red hues – illustrating “high” to “very high” fire risk, throughout the entire region.
Yet the devastation wrought by previous fires shrivels in comparison to the Thomas Fire’s brutal assault. Over the course of a month, this persistent inferno burned over 281,000 acres, destroyed over 1,000 structures, and damaged several hundred more. It sent soot and particulate matter spiraling into blackened skies, as aggressive Santa Ana winds, Santa Barbara’s ongoing drought, and hot weather fueled its relentless progression. It was the perfect storm. According to an official incident report, “The Thomas Fire is now the largest fire in California’s modern recorded history.”
Then, when the hot, dry winds finally ceased and made way for more typical winter weather – Santa Barbara’s first rainstorm of the season – one ecological calamity welcomed another, as the Thomas Fire ignited a vicious ripple effect. Robbed of anchoring vegetation and topsoil, charred earth collapsed beneath torrential downpour, unleashing a deluge of mountainous debris upon the community of Montecito. Ripping homes from their foundations, dragging vehicles and boulders down streets, and leveling high-voltage power lines and gas mains, the Montecito mudslides claimed 21 lives, injured 28 more, and destroyed over 100 homes.
A large wildfire typically feeds off of three key elements: a large fuel supply, conducive weather, and response efforts that are insufficient to quell the flames. The Thomas Fire satisfied all three of these categories, and then some: fuel from Santa Barbara’s ongoing drought, hot, dry weather in the month of December, and high, unpredictable Santa Ana winds that made suppression efforts extensively difficult.
Yet this was not a natural disaster. The nature of this resolution implies that the events resulted from some distant cause and forces outside our control. While early warning systems may not save us minutes before disaster strikes, the ultimate early warning system alarmed decades ago.
In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius released a groundbreaking paper titled, “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground.” In simpler terms, this was among the first papers to suggest human-induced climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. While his ideas were largely rejected for over fifty years, in 1960, scientist Charles David Keeling published his famous record of striking CO2 rise. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its First Assessment Report, concluding that human emissions had drastically risen global temperatures.
The 1990 IPCC report includes other significant conclusions as well. “Fire damage is expected to increase with the susceptibility of the forests.” “Losses from wildfire will be increasingly extensive.” In an entire segment devoted specifically to wildfires, it states, “Changes in the frequency and seasonal distribution of forest fires are likely as a result of greenhouse gas induced climate change.” And the real kicker: it calls for “increased costs of clean up… from urban infrastructure,” as a result of landslides in fire-prone areas. It’s as if the writers of this report unknowingly cast a lens into the future, to southern California in December 2017.
This report was written seven years before I was born. As I approach my 21st year on this planet, extreme weather events are still classified as jaw-dropping, utterly unexpected, “breaking” news. And despite the overwhelming evidence cascading from the skies and hills around us, leaders – news anchors, weather stations, politicians, teachers, those of us in a position to influence public perception – still abstain from calling it “climate change.”
This is not global warming. It’s not even climate change. It’s climate disruption, utter chaos, the manipulation of our nourishing, protective atmosphere on such a profound level that we have launched the forces that sustain us into a terrible war against us. Category five hurricanes in Puerto Rico, record floods in Houston, devastating fires in California – these extreme events are not the result of some unseen, tragic force outside our control, nor a vicious attack from an angered realm above – they’re the consequences of our cognitive dissonance, over the last 30, 40, 100 or so years. And now, we pay.
10 years ago, in 2008, a climate study reported that, in their predictive models, “the largest changes in property damages under the climate change scenarios occurred in wildland/urban interfaces proximate to major metropolitan areas in coastal Southern California, the Bay area, and the Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento.” It then specifically warns of California’s enhanced wildfire risk, and the five million homes that make “wildfires a particularly important source of potential climate change impacts for the state.” Fire prevention costs, health impacts, storm runoff and flooding, erosion, degraded water quality – all detailed in a study published ten years ago.
The 2017 Santa Barbara County Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan – a real mouthful of a title, that essentially documents hazards in Santa Barbara county – discusses wildfires and flooding extensively, indicating “high probabilities” of both of these incidents. The history of flooding in Santa Barbara county, especially Montecito, is particularly startling, stating, “Flooding has been a major problem throughout Santa Barbara County’s history.” As early as 1862, there are records of intense flooding events. In 1914, 12 houses were swept away, wrecking 6 bridges and 2 dams, and causing 22 deaths. Over 50 homes sank in 1952, and in 1964 following the Coyote Fire, 20 foot walls of water, mud, boulders, and trees cascaded down Montecito at 15 mph. Just five years later, more flooding in Montecito. The list goes on.
That’s not to say that anyone should have seen this coming. Santa Barbara County emergency officials did their best to respond to this startling wake of ecological disaster. Experts poured extensive research into determining evacuation zones, and the floods surpassed their worst predictions. Nobody anticipated such an enormous magnitude of devastation. But that’s just the problem: we have no way of knowing for sure what implications climate disruption will bring. All we have is the science – and so far, the science has predicted future events with a striking, eerie conviction. When a report published over 20 years ago predicts the events of today with such strident accuracy, it’s difficult to comprehend why we didn’t act sooner. Is our first instinct to assume the science is just wrong? Believe me, I wish it was.
Climate change is not a sudden phenomenon. It’s not as riveting and dramatic as a single hurricane, or the moment of terror that comes from driving down a freeway enveloped in flames. We won’t turn a corner and watch it suddenly manifest before our eyes. And we can’t just exit the road and drive to a better place. Climate disruption is a demon of slow violence, occurring gradually and mostly out of sight, striking with sudden, abbreviated moments of terror. Yet we deal with it as it comes, blaming proximate causes, disguising ill-preparation with fast rebuilding, evacuation warnings, or statements like, “Be prepared to leave immediately at your own discretion if the situation worsens” – as a 20 foot wall of debris consumes your house. That’s like telling someone to outswim a tsunami.
Aside from its discussion of fire and flooding hazards, the 2017 mitigation report also states, “History has demonstrated that it is less expensive to mitigate against disaster than to repeatedly repair damage in the aftermath.” In an age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between “natural” and “man-made” disasters, where “extreme” weather is becoming the new normal, where words in their superlative form reign supreme, we need communities that withstand the unexpected. Nobody can predict the next big fire, flood, or hurricane – but we’ve had the climate science for decades, and yet it stagnates in the back of our minds, like lost information from a useless class we took in high school. We’ve been thrown a lifeline – yet have foolishly tossed it aside, deciding instead to flounder beneath the toxic weight of our stifling apathy.
Climate activist and author Naomi Klein once asserted that climate denialism is not limited to disbelief, but inaction. For the past several decades, we’ve relished as climate deniers, and the wake of tragedy following these not-so-natural disasters attests to that. Future generations beg us to act, before we conscript them as involuntary lab rats for science that already exists.
This action does not entail rapid re-development, but instead what Dr. David Pellow, Professor of Environmental Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, terms regenerative development: “We need to change how we build and develop our communities so that they don’t just minimize harm to local ecosystems; we need to develop in ways that actually enhance environmental and human health.” This regenerative development calls for an unprecedented determination to coexist: to shift away from excessive consumption and economic models reliant on systemic injustice, away from fossil fuels, away from market-based strategies that don’t quell 280,000 acre forest fires – towards circular economic models, reduced consumption, restored ecosystems, and participatory democracy. Santa Barbara has a Climate Action Plan – yet nowhere in this document does it state the immediate and dramatic paradigm shift that needs to occur if we are to overcome the inconceivable.
Fires cleanse ecosystems. Already, the hills surrounding Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are acquiring golden hues, as vegetation reawakens from scorched soil. The fittest organisms thrive – special adaptations send the strongest trees spiraling upwards, and for some Chaparral species, the fire presents a unique opportunity to reproduce. Faced with the same environmental pressure, we now have a chance to adapt – to develop community resilience akin to the thickened bark of the most robust conifers; communities that quickly sprout and resurge like the Chaparral grasses, that thrive in the wake of climate change’s intensified preturbations. With the disappearance of flooding and flames, climate disruption retreats into invisibility once again – when it reappears, will we be ready?
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