My evacuation from the California wildfires gave my climate work new urgency

Jennifer Andreassen Burke

At 4 am on Friday, Nov. 9, I got the emergency alert I’d been dreading: We were under a mandatory evacuation order.

I live in Thousand Oaks, a city that until last week was known for its low crime rate and expansive space – until a tragic mass shooting and destructive wildfires hit our area within the span of 24 hours.

Emergency officials were projecting that the extremely dry Santa Ana winds, which cause so much destruction during California fires, would push the catastrophic Woolsey Fire our way. These winds, coupled with a seven-year drought linked to climate change, have turned much of our state into a tinderbox.

Just three miles away, my family’s neighborhood had been ordered to evacuate due to a separate wildfire, the Hill Fire.

Because the winds ended up shifting, we got very lucky: The fire moved toward Malibu, sparing much of our city. When our evacuation orders were lifted later the next day, I connected with my coworkers to let them know I was safe and back home – and to get back to working on California’s biggest opportunity  to address climate change.

Our team is laser focused on the state’s effort to help protect tropical forests, which absorb climate pollution. Keeping forests such as the Amazon standing is critical for preventing catastrophic global warming.

California’s proposed standard for carbon credits to preserve tropical forests may also help slow climate change where I live. It’s coming not a day too soon.

This is what climate change looks like

Even as we’re safe from the fires, for now, the air outside smells like smoke when the winds blow in a certain direction. The hills surrounding my Thousand Oaks neighborhood are draped in red fire retardant to prevent both the Woolsey and the Hill fires from advancing.

My house is on the flightpath between the helicopter central command and the active fires, so we’re constantly hearing the hum of air support. And while on my 10-minute drive to the doctor, I passed heavy smoke right off the freeway – in what turned out to be a short-lived fire, thankfully. The doctor’s office was handing out N95 respirator masks to protect us against smoke.

We all know that wildfires, particularly during periods of strong winds, can change in an instant. It takes just a spark and entire communities could be overtaken by flames. Everyone’s on edge.

“The new abnormal”

I’ve been lucky, but so many Californians nearby and in communities up north have faced devastating losses of loved ones and homes from the fires this past week. It’s heartbreaking to see the damage and to know it’s not the last time something like this will happen. Nobody deserves such tragedy.

Over the past few days, state officials have been talking about the unprecedented nature of these fires.

“The fact of the matter is, if you look at the state of California, climate challenge is happening statewide,” said Los Angeles Fire Chief Daryl Osby.

“This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal,” noted Gov. Jerry Brown. “Things like this will be a part of our future.”

To illustrate that point: Last year, my husband, a teacher, got more days off because of harmful smoke from the massive Thomas Fire than he did for snow days during the six years he lived in Washington, DC.

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View from Jenny’s neighborhood on Nov. 13, 2018.

All this brings me back to California’s opportunity to protect tropical forests. Having witnessed the destruction of wildfires up close and having lived through the fear of us, our family and friends possibly losing our homes, I feel even more urgency to address the climate crisis.

California’s horrific wildfires are proof: The fight against climate change is one we cannot afford to lose.

Comments

Watching part of a "Nature" show on public TV last night, it occurred to me that we might not have the wildfires if we had left the Indians in charge of forest maintenance.... need to go back and watch the whole show...

Mary Baird
November 15, 2018 at 6:37 pm

Hire migrants to clear the forests' floor from fire-proned debris!

Don Manning
November 15, 2018 at 6:52 pm

See aesopinstitute.org for hard-to-believe new science & technology that can replace fossil fuels much faster.

Mark Goldes
November 15, 2018 at 7:08 pm

It is heartbreaking to learn of the loss of life, homes and communities in California due to the devastating forest fires. The first thing that our newly elected Congress must tackle is to immediately make the environment the highest priority. We can no longer wait and see, those days are behind us.
We must join the rest of the world to do everything we can to make sure that our planet survives for our children and grandchildren.

Doris K.Dibble
November 15, 2018 at 7:50 pm

The climate deniers have to get the true picture now!

Heather Williams
November 16, 2018 at 1:00 am

We have always had climate change, You do realize that when they did the ice core samples in Antarctica they found tropical plants from thousands of years ago, We had glaciers that covered Ohio and then receded forming the great lakes. Cycles have occurred for as long as the earth has been here. This is nothing new.

Jane
November 21, 2018 at 12:04 am

In reply to by Heather Williams

We need to act now.

Janis
November 16, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Protecting tropical forests is one of many things the world needs to do to stop climate change, but it is sorely insufficient. It also risks the label of the rich world wanting to dump all the “costs” of climate change abatement on the developing world. I am a long-time member of EDF, but am concerned that this is the message coming out of EDF, especially from you who have been directly affected by the fires.

As you said, now, when people are scared silly by the dramatic event is the time when people may be willing to sacrifice some of their comfort for the good of everyone. Please, as a representative of EDF, push for solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions right here in California and the United States. Help us push for more safety checks on utility equipment and natural gas and oil producers. Let’s not do too little way too late.

Helena
November 17, 2018 at 12:06 am

Climate change is a national issue. Politics should not be involved

Linda berndt
November 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm

We have to wonder and attempt to calculate the cost of the fossil industry's concerted effort to spread doubt and delay decisive action that might have prevented a lot of the devastating effects we are seeing. And with that we must question why they would be so willing to defer the cost of inaction to all of the life on this planet. Considering what is lost, their gain is pathetic. They have no moral claim to any of that gain and must be held accountable for the cost of what they've done.

Mark Webb
November 18, 2018 at 12:44 am

We need to protect all our forests to ensure our future

Carmen Marco
November 18, 2018 at 1:49 am

All Americans should support an internationally-funded program to save the Amazon Forest by creating numerous green jobs for communities that live near the Amazon, via sustainable forestry, management, regreening, and renewable energy. This should be done especially in Brazil where the new government has announced plans to make the Amazon available for investment by cattle ranching and other interests. The Amazon rainforest needs to be preserved as a vital eco-system which constitutes the "lungs" of the planet.

Yanique Joseph
November 19, 2018 at 3:10 pm

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