The California Wildfires Reopen Emotional Wounds

 The sun above Lucia’s hometown of Petaluma, California, shining through smoky skies from the wildfires.

The sun above Lucia’s hometown of Petaluma, California, shining through smoky skies from the wildfires.

This post is written by #youthvgov supporter Lucia, 16, from Petaluma, California. If you’re interested in writing a guest blog post, contact our Digital Storyteller Caitlin at caitlin@ourchildrenstrust.org.

On Thursday, my phone buzzed in math class. A text reported a ‘very large fire’ in Butte County three hours away. When the lunch bell rang I went outside and caught a snowflake on the palm of my hand. It was 80 degrees out and the snowflake was grey and warm. With a nostalgic dread, I smelled a campfire and watched the blue sky slowly turn with smoke. Barely more than a year ago my county was on fire and we are not yet healed from the scars, but it’s happening again.

On Friday I packed my bag for school. My heart sank when I realized that the hills near my house were almost completely obscured by the smoke. Almost on cue my phone rang, the school was canceled for the day, stay inside, stay safe. That day we replaced air filters instead of writing essays, we used face masks instead of pencils, we checked air quality instead of our grades. My friends celebrated the day off, their joy morbidly darkened by an understandable reluctance to go outdoors and the restless nervousness buzzing in every household.

Trapped in a smokescreen that had become a mirror of last year’s event, I reflected on the effects of that fire. The wounds created by last year’s fire, emotional, economic, and environmental, are still gaping and visible in my town and across the county. Last year, when the fire appeared along the hills I can see from my bedroom, my mother packed the car, grabbed the cat, and moved us all into a friend’s beach house at Point Reyes. On the beach, surrounded by tiny expensive houses, California weekend surfers, and the cool breeze of the Pacific Ocean, it was almost easy to forget about the devastation further inland. The constant reminder was a streak of smoke bleeding across the blue sky from the direction of our home, like ugly scar tissue being carved uninvited over the normality of our lives.

When we returned to help with the volunteering, my high school was filled to capacity with refugees. I couldn’t help but notice that most of them seemed to be Latino. Of course, a wildfire destroys indiscriminately, but these were the people who had nowhere else to go, and soon they would be the people who had no homes to return to. As we helped them try to replace their lost possessions from our hand-me-downs and donations, I overheard a Spanish teacher trying to explain to the parents of young children that no, they did not need to show a visa to come to this refugee center, no questions would be asked, they did not need to be afraid.

But of course, they should be afraid. They had just lost their houses and all of their belongings and for some, simply existing in the home of the free was illegal. And now, in 2018, it’s happening all over again.

I’m angry for the people of Butte County, who are being burnt out of their homes. I’m angry for myself and my peers, who are being choked out of our education. I’m angry for the first responders, who are risking their lives battling a problem that should be preventable. I’m angry for the farmers and ranchers, whose livelihoods are being turned to ashes before their eyes.

California has been suffering in drought for years and nothing has been done. I know this because I have lived it. I have watched the green grass turn brown in the summers and never turn back. I have felt the winters go drier every year. I have mourned the loss of rivers and streams and choked on the ash that used to be someone’s home. I have seen these things and I have also watched the people in power ignorantly treat the symptoms without addressing the true issues. There are those who would rather let me and my future burn than put the effort into finding a solution for fossil fuels and climate change. So explain to me why these people are in power?

 
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Lucia, photographed here on the summit of Mule Pass in Yosemite, is a 16-year-old high school junior from Petaluma, California.

 
Caitlin Howard