I was reading a book of non-fiction that suggests cyborgs will take over our catastrophically warming planet when I got a text from my partner: ‘The Sonoma fire got worse. Evacuations, though I can’t look at a map right now. Might check it out and touch base with your mom?’ This was the first I’d heard of any fire. My parents live in Sonoma, the brittle, golden part of Northern California good for growing grapes and increasingly prone to massive wildfires. On this particular morning, 24 October, my father was away from home, travelling for business. In New York, where I live, it was just after 10 a.m., which meant that in Sonoma it was 7 a.m. and my mother was home alone, possibly asleep.
When I had spoken to her the night before, she was preparing for yet another planned power outage after a ‘red flag warning’ was issued, meaning that conditions were ideal for wildfires – high winds, high temperatures and low humidity. Combine those conditions with vegetation parched by ongoing drought and you have a tinderbox waiting for a spark. She told me how hot it had been, how dry. She had thought the warm weather was over for the year, but temperatures had spiked – up to almost 32 degrees in late October. A ‘wind event’ was forecast, so PG&E, the private utility company that supplies California’s power and whose shoddily maintained infrastructure has a tendency to start fires, was planning to shut off electricity to nearly 179,000 people in a desperate attempt to prevent another wildfire. My mother had gone to bed with the power still on, but didn’t know what she’d wake up to.
I told myself not to panic. I did a quick search for ‘Sonoma fire’, and saw walls of orange and red flame accompanying dire reports from three hours ago, two hours ago, 43 minutes ago. A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: ‘Kincade Fire in Sonoma County grows to ten thousand acres, Evacuation Orders Expand.’ I called my mother. If she wasn’t awake, maybe she should be. While the phone rang and rang, I looked online for a fire map. I wanted one with live updates, preferably from satellite data. US Forest Service. Nasa. ArcGIS. It felt extremely odd to know where to look.
In 2017, the Tubbs Fire burned 36,810 acres in roughly the same area of Northern California, while more than a dozen fires raged in eight other counties.[*] My parents were notified that they should be ready to evacuate. They loaded up the car and waited for further instructions while watching smoke rise from the ridge just beyond the field of dry, waist-high grass that came up to their wooden fence. That year, the wildfires killed 47 people. In 2018, the Camp Fire burned a record-setting 153,336 acres, destroying 18,804 buildings and killing 85 people, who were roasted alive in their cars, boiled alive in their backyard pools, or overtaken by flames while running on roads so hot their sneakers melted off their blistering feet.
My parents have since moved, despite the fires, to another quaint Northern California town surrounded by vineyards, dairy ranches and hundreds of thousands of acres of flammable organic material. According to fire science and local ecology, it is a matter of when, not if. But my parents have lived in Northern California since the 1970s, and it’s hard for them to imagine leaving. Unlike so many now living in precarious landscapes – on dangerously low floodplains or desiccated farmland or islands sinking into the sea – they have the privilege of being able to leave. And yet, they don’t.
I was listening to my parents’ phone ring and looking at a map on the Press Democrat that showed the Kincade Fire well north of their home, but burning hot and fast. Elsewhere, it was being reported that soon after it started, the fire was blazing at the rate of one football field every three seconds. When she finally answered the phone, my mother’s voice was groggy, not quite wide-awake. ‘I just woke up and saw there’s a fire,’ she said. I could hear the TV in the background, the volume turned up too high because someone in the house is losing their hearing, though they insist they aren’t. This meant my mother had electricity, for now. I heard the concern build in her voice as she told me another wind event was forecast for the evening. I tried not to let her hear the panic in mine. ‘Maybe I’ll pack a bag and go to Holly’s,’ she said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Maybe that would be best.’ I was looking at a map of the fire burning towards Highway 101, the single freeway that feeds out of all the towns there. ‘The highway is going to get backed up,’ she said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Maybe it would be best to go, just so you don’t have to sit there and worry.’ I heard myself, and laughed. ‘Let me rephrase that: so I don’t have to sit here and worry.’ She was fully awake now. When we hung up, she was preparing to start her day on the move.
Should you find yourself in need of guidance on ways to prepare for wildfire bearing down on your home, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, offers a pre-evacuation checklist. The lengthy section on how to prepare ‘Inside the House’ includes:
Remove flammable window shades, curtains, and close metal shutters.
Move flammable furniture to the centre of the room, away from windows and doors.
Leave your lights on so firefighters can see your house under smoky conditions.
The equally extensive ‘Outside’ checklist includes:
Gather up flammable items from the exterior of the house and bring them inside (patio furniture, children’s toys, doormats, trash cans etc) or place them in your pool.
Move propane BBQ appliances away from structures.
Fill water buckets and place them around the house.
Back your car into the driveway with vehicle loaded and all doors and windows closed. Carry your car keys with you.
Your emergency supply kit, which CalFire suggests you have packed and ready to go at all times, should include the following items:
Three-day supply of non-perishable food and three gallons of water per person
Prescriptions or special medications
Copies of important documents (birth certificates, passports etc)
An extra set of car keys, credit cards, cash or traveller’s cheques
First aid kit
Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
Finally, CalFire suggests you should ‘always keep a sturdy pair of shoes and a flashlight near your bed.’
If you don’t own a car in which to put all these supplies, or have, like a surprising number of people in the rural hills and valleys, a herd of llamas to get to safety, the guidelines are less helpful. (Pro tip via Twitter: llamas like a sock over the face when being evacuated.) CalFire doesn’t have any suggestions for how to keep extra prescription medication on hand when your insurance company will only pay for one month’s supply. Nor does it offer advice on how to stock up on traveller’s cheques when you’re living payday to payday. If you are one of the more than two million undocumented people living in California (i.e. the people who power the state’s economy) you’ll find CalFire silent on the subject of what it means to flee without those important papers – will you be deported if you seek help at a shelter? If your life depends on a respirator, or your mobility depends on a wheelchair that requires a power source, good luck. PG&E eventually cut power to around 850,000 buildings across the state.
I tracked the progress of the Kincade fire throughout the day, which became two days, then three, then a week. The fire was 0 per cent contained, heading south and west. The winds changed. More people were evacuated. The fire was 5 per cent contained. Hurricane-force ‘Diablo Winds’ were predicted. There was concern the fire could burn all the way to the coast. More people lost power. The Diablo Winds arrived, whipping the fire into a new frenzy. Spot fires broke out. My parents’ power went off, then on again. Their house remained outside the path of immediate danger, but the fire was unpredictable and seemed to explode overnight, every night, when the winds picked up. I woke each morning to ballooning numbers – 30,000 acres; 50,000 acres; 70,000 acres – and scrambled to check the maps.
Other wildfires began burning. One broke out near Geyserville, not far from the Kincade Fire. The Burris Fire broke out near Mendocino. In Southern California, the Maria Fire exploded across four thousand acres in a matter of hours. In Los Angeles, the Getty Fire threatened the Getty Museum and the Easy Fire encroached on the Ronald Reagan Library. My sister lives in L.A., so my attention was briefly diverted to a different set of maps, but as far as I could tell none of the fires was close to her home. The Hillside Fire, the Hill Fire, the Oak Fire, the Tick Fire … too many fires to keep up with.
Meanwhile, the media were obsessed with the way the Kincade Fire, now the largest fire in Sonoma County history, got started. (At 77,000 acres, the Kincade Fire has consumed an area more than twice the size of San Francisco.) There were blood-in-the-water speculations about a faulty piece of equipment at a PG&E facility, and a growing sense among reporters that the investor-owned utility was, once again, to blame. In recent years, felonious malfeasance and negligence by PG&E, as well as plain bad luck (windblown branches falling onto power lines), have resulted in an astonishing number of wildfires: their equipment started 433 fires in 2018 alone, including the devastating Camp Fire, which blazed through the town of Paradise while panicked residents, many with only a few minutes’ warning, scrambled to flee from the smoke and flame. The streets leading out of town were soon choked with traffic. Do you stay in your car and risk being burned alive, or do you get out and run and risk being burned alive? One woman ran two and a half miles at full sprint, made it to the edge of town and survived. Eighty-five other people found no exit. The firestorm left the town a smouldering heap. On 29 January, just two months after the Camp Fire had finally been extinguished, PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection. Its debt had ballooned into the tens of billions due to all the liability claims filed in the wake of the wildfires.
The Kincade Fire may have been sparked by PG&E’s equipment, but it’s also true that PG&E is operating under extraordinary circumstances wrought at least in part by forces outside their control. New housing developments have sprung up in the bucolic, fire-prone landscape of dry ridges and valleys (‘There are just some places a subdivision shouldn’t be built,’ one former fire chief said). In environments like this, climate change is a tightening noose. And yet, especially in the early days, almost nowhere did I see the Kincade Fire linked to climate change or development. The New York Times had a flurry of pieces about the California fires that referred to global warming (with varying degrees of clarity), but not to the housebuilding. The Washington Post did better, but both lagged behind local coverage, where the focus remained trained on PG&E. A piece in the Verge stated the impact of the climate crisis most clearly: ‘Longer droughts and more unpredictable winds turn what would once have been manageable fires into region-wide catastrophes … The slow-moving nature of the climate crisis means that, under even the best scenarios, these fires will keep growing for the next forty years. The longer we keep going this way, the more powerful they’ll get.’ At this point in human history, we know enough to suspect that any report that fails to address climate change in a story about catastrophic fires, or floods, or storms (or migration, or elections, or the global economy) is getting the story wrong.
On the day I started tracking the fire, I searched for #Kincadefire on Twitter and the first post that popped up showed a shaky video shot from the front seat of a car barrelling through a gauntlet of fire. The car was weaving down a two-lane road at night, the view through the windshield obscured by smoke, the darkness lit by the flashing tail-lights of an emergency vehicle just ahead and the red glow of flames blazing through brushwood along either side. As I watched the car navigate this hellscape, I realised that the scene was familiar. It looked just like a video I saw after the Camp Fire. That video had left me shaken. This one did not. I’d already assimilated what was, a year earlier, an unimaginable horror. As we glide along the path of our own destruction, this is how we normalise it – one tweet at a time.
Normalisation, for those still fortunate enough to live at what feels like the edges of the crisis, is a way to make increasingly unfamiliar and unsettling circumstances bearable. When the Kincade Fire started, my mother was bewildered by the task of working out what to take if she had to evacuate. Much of her anxiety came from the fact that my father wasn’t there to help decide what to save. Which photo albums? Which clothes? Books? A piece of art? I suggested that once this danger had passed, she and my father should sit down and make a list of things they might want to save, so that next time she wouldn’t have to make any decisions. She can just grab and go. The choices you make about what to pack when you have 24 hours to get out are different from those you make when you have five hours, or one hour. But you can prepare for that, make multiple lists. ‘That’s a good idea,’ she said. For my mother, this may provide the sense of security (however false) that comes from feeling ‘prepared’. Get milk, book haircut, make list of items to save from wildfire. It’s easier to normalise than to make a more radical move.
One morning nearly a week after the Kincade Fire first started burning, I went online for the overnight news and was met with a sleek commercial for Lexus cars: ‘Is it possible to outsmart fate?’ A slim, handsome man with a carefully rumpled beard smiled at me from the side of his face. I moved on. A few clicks later, I learned that rich Californians are hiring their own private firefighters, at a cost of around $2500 a day. When the governor, Gavin Newsom, held a press conference about the Kincade Fire and insisted that ‘this is not the new normal,’ I understood that to mean he’s working on the PG&E problem. But I also wondered if he knows what he’s talking about.