Everything Burns

Photo: Getty

I can’t remember when the rains stopped. Like the wildfires, flooding in my rural California suburb was a fact of life. Our house bordered the levy that kept the river at bay, and my elementary school was perched at the bottom of the foothills in a narrow valley—the place where rain water would congregate, like the kids in rain boots who’d spend the morning splashing from one class to the next. But then, for no reason I could identify at the time, they stopped. By the time I left college, it hadn’t flooded in years.

It’s the little changes I noticed most. While I had plenty of experience driving in the rain, my little sister did not. She crashed her car her junior year, during a storm drenched Tuesday morning. Nobody was seriously injured, except, maybe, her shattered sense of how the world was supposed to work.

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For my peers, our entire adult lives have been defined by this proximity to disaster, which turned the annual fire season into a full-time experience. When we are not actively running from an incoming fire, we are anxiously laughing about when the “Big One” will hit, or wondering when the Ace Hardware down the street will re-stock their air filters. The despondent pose for their weddings while fires consume the livelihoods of thousands of people in the distance. Most kids now probably don’t know what a California rainstorm feels like. Their more pressing concern is reminding their parents to pack an extra safety mask before catching the bus.

But in reality, none of this feels new. These experiences were exacerbated by the fact I grew up in the California where endless valleys hurtle up into mountains, which just as quickly drop straight into the sea. It’s also cliche to note that living in California is to live amongst disaster, as writers like Joan Didion, John McPhee and Clare Vaye Watkins have chronicled. Consider my grandparents, who’ve lived their whole lives in a cabin on one of those mountains.

My grandparents sat in this same uneasy balance: living in a teetering A-frame on the side of the Santa Cruz Mountains that’s eroding from storm-induced landslides; or burning down from fires; or occasionally having bits tumble down into the forest below after earthquakes. Large sections of my grandparents’ house fell off during the 1989 earthquake—the same earthquake which caused a rogue fire to sweep their hillside during an unusually hot October afternoon. The cabin survived, but the lesson remains: To live in California is to live on the edge of the future, but also of the world. For my grandparents, not knowing what tomorrow would bring was the only thing that could be known at all.


In 2004, I secretly watched The Day Before Tomorrow with my brother on TV. He loved it. But I threw up. The scenes of a frozen New York City or tornado-racked Los Angeles didn’t feel fictional. I already lived in that world, my mind preoccupied most days with what I would do if a volcano erupted while my mom was driving me to school.

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These climate disasters were only compounded by the less tangible disasters of my childhood. The 2000s didn’t help. By the time the towers fell I was barely six, but I do remember my mom clutching the landline and screaming. Elementary school life was punctuated by wars. The financial crisis saw both of my parents lose their jobs, foreclose on our home, and work 20 hour days to survive. When the rains stopped in high school, people globally were waking up to the impending climate disaster. The drought, ironically, was punctuated by the early hope of the Obama campaign. I remember my middle school history teacher standing by, ready to pull the plug on our small classroom television in case of an assassination attempt during his inauguration.

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I’m 24 now, and this is the only world I and so many other people know. It’d be easy to slip into despondency, but everyone around me seems more actively fighting against the future than ever before. For much of last year, I taught documentary filmmaking in an after-school program for high school students in the Bay Area. During the height of the wildfires, I watched as 14 and 15-year-olds crowdfunded for their parents and grandparents to have proper masks. Some organized clothing drives for those affected by the Camp Fire, others co-ordinated group travel plans when the smoke was at its thickest and barely anyone could breathe or see more than 10 feet in front of them.

These were not a defeated group of the disenfranchised. They were, in many ways, more able to fight against the destruction of this world than anyone else before them. I was just old enough to recognize that things had changed; they knew nothing different.

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Life in the Bay is full of contradictions. It is the most expensive city in the world and it’s burning down. Cutting edge technology has pushed countless people from their homes as corporations carve the city up, but even the onset of the rich can’t save a failing and shoddy PG&E grid that—just last year—killed almost 100 people. I’ve been most surprised by the resilience.

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Over the last week, almost 2 million people lost their power around me. With each new surprise shut-off, I’d sit around and wonder if this was the time the lights would go black, or my husband would trudge back from work having lost the means to pay our rent that month. Friends of mine organized group chats for co-ordinating evacuations, while family on Facebook worried that they wouldn’t have access to the pharmacy or hospital. And all the while, life hasn’t stopped—like landing my dream job here at Jezebel, which is now weirder and more time consuming than ever. Stressed from the conflux of disaster and work drama, I poured myself into a treadmill at the gym last week. The little television shows clips of houses burning down while a plume of smoke inched its way toward me.

First responders and survivors I’ve met since the Camp Fire have told me that the nightmares that keep them up at night often involve the elderly who had no one to care for them, no one to sweep them away before the fires overtook their trailer parks and family homes. It’s an anxiety I similarly cannot shake, having grandparents who—despite the many, many disasters that have befallen them—refuse to move.

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Over the weekend, I rushed down to Los Angeles to be with my mother-in-law as she lived through yet another threat of wildfire evacuation. I spent the whole drive down with my husband wondering what would happen if she had to flee before we could get there. I didn’t even think about our own apartment, as we live too close to the ocean in the Bay Area for the fires to truly threaten it in the immediate present. Everything was ultimately fine, and we spent my husband’s thirtieth birthday indoors, the air outside thick with ash. It marked the third time we’ve fled our home together headlong into another fire.

I should be more angry than I am, considering that so many people with so much more power than I will ever have made choices knowing it would ultimately rob my generation of a functioning planet that has fostered life for millions of years. But that burning hatred has, in recent weeks, transformed into something else. A weapon; a solid, material mass I can feel inside of me. It doesn’t fill my throat, or grip my heart, or keep me awake. Instead, it fills me with an uncharacteristic peace. Despite the hopelessness around me, I’ve never felt more that things can be saved than I do right now.

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This time next year, someone I love might have lost their home. Friends could die, my family flee the only place they’ve ever lived. But in this new world around me, I’m no longer afraid. All I want to do now is fucking fight for it.

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