When I woke up yesterday morning, smoke from the Kincade fire in Sonoma County had started to creep over our region.
I felt so freaked out.
I’d been dreading this moment since Thanksgiving last year. I know what that smoke brings. It means days or weeks hiding inside, avoiding the toxic, ash-filled air. Last year, it was the Butte County fire. The year before that, there was the Napa fire. Both were unprecedented, devastating disasters. Many people lost their homes and businesses, others lost their lives.
With each fire, I was enormously grateful that my own house and family were all intact, that I had safe shelter, food and water, my belongings. But the smoke smothering northern California was also terrible. It was awfully oppressive to be trapped indoors with no fresh air, flat grey skies out the closed window, red sunlight brushing everything an eerie pink, and white ash covering the ground, plants and cars like an unnatural snow. The birds were silent.
I felt helpless in the face of these enormous, unnatural disasters, the fires gone rogue, escalated thanks to the impact of man-made climate change. It was scary to know that breathing even a small amount of this toxic smoke could damage our lungs for the rest of our lives. It was hard to swallow my anxiety, not to collapse into myself, and instead to try to keep us in good spirits. I needed to be strong for my child. I did my best.
I tried to take action, although I was at a loss for exactly what to do. I donated food for people in Butte County. I packed some emergency supplies, in case we got hit by a fire ourselves. I talked with my family about what we’d do. We wore N95 masks, though mine felt too big for my face. We bought a small high-efficiency air filtration system. I imagined how we could help our cities become sustainable, quickly. I thought about how we need to adapt and get high-efficiency filtration systems in all of our homes and buildings. How at the very least, we need community centers to have safe, filtered air.
The toxic smoke from the Butte County fire lasted two weeks. Then finally, on Thanksgiving, it rained. The smoke cleared. The plants were washed gently. We could open the windows and breathe again. Oh my god. I was so grateful. But even as the air was clearing, I wasn’t fooled. I thought about all that toxic ash washing into the ocean and our water.
And I thought about how this was going to happen again, without a doubt. Because climate change is now.
I wanted to be prepared. I wanted our cities to get on local, community-owned, clean power, without delay. I wanted to get our elected officials to pass policies and allocate funding for ruggedization efforts, including HEPA filters and proper doors in public buildings to keep out the smoke. I wanted a rapid, Just Transition, though at the time I wasn’t familiar with the phrase.
In the last year, I’ve spoken with some of my elected officials. They’ve been verbally supportive of my requests for clean air but it doesn’t seem like they’ve implemented any real solutions. I’ve also been connecting with awesome environmental justice non-profits in the area who are working on securing clean air in our schools and public spaces, among many other projects. But they need more support to meet the scale of these crises.
So here we are. It’s late October 2019, we’re starting another awful period of extreme fires, and my local libraries’ air filtration systems and entryways haven’t changed. My child is now in public school, and her school doesn’t have high-efficiency filtration systems, nor, I’m guessing, do most (if not all) of the others in the district. The fossil fuel industry still has us burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style (they already did) and consuming resources we can’t afford to lose.
Yesterday morning, when I saw indicators of increasingly unhealthy air in my region, I felt that crushing dread hop on my back, constricting my breathing, slowing the functioning of my brain. It was happening. The fires and smoke were back, along with my fears.
Of course, my child and morning responsibilities were as demanding as ever. I wasn’t allowed to fall apart. I had to feed us breakfast, pack lunch, and get to school on time. Was the air quality going to be good enough for my child to go to school, I wondered? Would they cancel classes? Or would the kids, teachers and staff just breathe polluted air?
They didn’t cancel school. And the air quality was increasingly unhealthy. My child’s teacher called halfway through to let me know my child had a bloody nose. Likely due, she said, to the dry, hot air, and the smoke. I wonder what impact the tiny particles of smoke are having on my child’s body.
Now, as the smoke is blowing into our cities and choking out our clean air, I’m still feeling scared. The fire is still out of control. Our elected leaders still hesitate to act.
But, something is different. I don’t feel as much despair. I feel determined and energized. Why? Because in the midst of my hectic morning yesterday, as I realized how awful I was feeling from the impending disaster of unbreathable air, I reached out to my friends and fellow organizers in the Sunrise Movement. I shared how I was feeling. They were so empathetic. I shared my idea that we need to connect with people in our region affected by the Kincade Fire and smoke, both to offer support and help channel everyone’s anger and fears into tangible action for systemic change. I felt the resonance in my hub and from national Sunrise organizers.
Throughout the day, I became increasingly energized. I spoke and connected with more people in Sunrise about how we can help mobilize people around these climate change disasters. By the end of the day, we had launched local and national campaigns to activate the ideas we’d discussed, including reaching out to emergency aid groups and building a framework for action.
While I am still feeling very distressed by the effects of the fire, I also feel empowered. Now that the climate crisis is so evident and personal across the US, many are looking for hope and solutions. This is a powerful moment. Together with our community partners, we are preparing to respond to climate change emergencies with constructive, creative actions. These actions will support our communities, and have the potential to mobilize massive numbers of people to join us in fighting hard for environmental, social and economic justice.
I deeply believe in the mission of the Sunrise Movement: to mobilize millions of young people for a Green New Deal and help elect environmental justice champions at all levels of government. I reject the defeatist rhetoric of the Fossil Fuel industry and corrupt or timid politicians. We have the power to achieve a Just Transition. And I believe we are going to win.
I’m sure that generation upon generation of organizers have experienced this power in coming together to fight for our rights and our dreams. Now, so many people who are not traditional activists are reckoning with the climate crisis and stepping up as organizers. I am excited and grateful that we all have so many networks who can support and validate our fight.
For anyone who is impacted by environmental and social injustices and doesn’t yet feel they have a place in this global revolution for climate justice, come and join us at the Sunrise Movement.
We are youth-led, but welcome everyone looking to help bring our systems back into balance on this planet.
To find a Sunrise hub near you, or to start your own if none exist nearby, visit http://www.sunrisemovement.org
Join us. Transform your frustration into action. Bring your skills and pour your passion into our fight for clean air, clean water, clean energy, walkable cities, good jobs, safe housing and a healthy planet for all.
All views are my own. Many thanks to Joe, Deirdre and Mattias for your feedback and support with this post.