As I write this blog, it is 26 degrees, sunny and pleasant in Ventura County, California U.S.A. I enjoy coming here every year to visit my mother. Sweet figs from my mother’s tree, fresh local strawberries, blackberries, avocados and persimmons grace her kitchen. This is the California we love and where
my great-grandparents immigrated to in search of a bit of paradise on earth. But there are an increasing number of days when it does not feel this way.
After taking a short trip to visit friends in Ohio, I returned to Los Angeles where the Getty fire was burning and threatening the most exclusive areas of the city. I boarded my usual shuttle at the airport. The driver told us if we had come a day earlier we would not have been able to get to Ventura County, as
the roads were closed due to the fires. As we drove by blackened hills, I looked up and could see firefighting helicopters continuing their battle against the Getty blaze. Last week, while shopping for groceries, I watched a nearby hill burn from yet another fire (named Maria) and the ensuing ashes fly about the car park. I forgot my N95 mask so I held my breath and scurried into the store, then dashed back to the car when I was finished. Mom doesn’t live in the threatened areas, but we feel the impact.
As my friends and I were enjoying an al fresco lunch, sitting under festive patio umbrellas to ward off the sun, we talked about using N95 masks and buying them in 10-packs to be ready for the inevitable wildfires. One friend lives 100 meters from the evacuation zone of one of the largest fires in California
history that took place two years ago. She stayed put and kept her fingers crossed. Another friend felt safe from the latest fire last week, as she was a mile away from the flames. The local electricity providers are now shutting off power regularly in fire prone areas to fend off the possibility of their power lines sparking a fire. During this latest round of fires, more than 2 million people had their electricity shut off, in some places for up to seven days. But it is like playing the game whack-a-mole. No guarantees.
From a recent Los Angeles Times article: The routine has become familiarly grim to thousands of Californians after weeks of wildfires from north of San Francisco to south of Los Angeles. Schools closed in many Los Angeles suburbs, and employees left work early to take care of children and check on homes as fires advanced and smoke streamed across the sky. Throughout the day, people checked the boundaries of mandatory evacuation maps on cellphones. Nearly 20 million state residents are living within high-risk fire areas, which have grown in size as the state’s climate turns to one of extremes.
Seven years of drought have led to over 100 million trees perishing. Now the rain has returned during winter months and is enough to grow beautiful green grasses and flora on all the surrounding hills and mountains. But come the dry summer and autumn months and it all turns to desiccated tinder thanks to
the drought induced parched environment. All it takes is one little spark to start a fire that can burn for miles, stoked by fierce Santa Ana winds. In 2019, California has had over 6,400 fires to date. Hills and valleys are blackened. Animals and people perish.
In September at St. James’s Church, Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City spoke to a group of us on the climate crisis, through a heartfelt, moving letter he wrote to his grandson, Eduardo. He lays out the shift from the relatively stable Holocene era to the one we are entering, the Anthropocene era, where climate instability, mass uncertainty, and breath-taking extinction are taking place at an escalating rate. Whenever I visit California, I feel the immediacy and fear that climate crisis can induce. I recommend this letter; through statistics, poetry, theological reflection and science, Larry paints a broad and poignant landscape of our current climate crisis. If you would like a copy, please contact me.
Americans are still prone to begin a conversation about what we are experiencing with the question, “Do you believe in climate change/global warming?” It is not a given, as it is in Europe, although the number of Americans who believe there is a climate crisis is rising. The average summer temperature in California, has risen 3.5ºF over the last one hundred years. This means drier air, drier land, drier foliage that is more likely to burn. The fires are eight times more intense than 50 years ago. When it is dry, the droughts are worse; when it rains, the rains come later and are more intense. All of this is attributed to the climate crisis. Yet the U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Agreement and locally the White House is in a battle with California to pull back emergency fire resources and cancel environmental protections.
Isaiah 65:17-18, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”. I think the best way for us to be glad and rejoice in what God is creating is to live as though the earth is the most precious thing God has created. We can be agents for a new heaven and new earth here and now.