Innovation Ecosystem

Letter from Paradise: crossing the big river denial

What does it mean when you are neck deep in the Big Muddy? Is it time to push on or change course?

Photo by Michael Fine

The welcome sign to Paradise now includes a warning to looters.

Photo by Michael Fine

An impromptu graveyard for victims of the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.

By Dr. Michael Fine
Posted 2/25/19
Dr. Michael Fine reflects on the lessons to be learned from the devastating fire in California that destroyed the town of Paradise.
What are the public health costs and insurance costs as a result of the threats of climate change? What are the consequences of not taking immediate action now to reduce the level of carbon in our atmosphere? What lessons can be learned from the successful efforts by the No Nukes grassroots campaigns to halt the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S.? Is there a need to invoke the suggestion by Dr. Doug Eby to his colleagues “to learn to listen in 10 different ways?” Does the bankruptcy filing by Pacific Gas & Electric in the aftermath of potential liability from the Camp Fire presage the need to change the utility infrastructure in the U.S.?
Rhode Island has a number of important energy and utility choices to make in the coming year. They include: whether or not to support the proposed $1 billion Invenergy power plant in Burrillville; whether or not to allow Providence to monetize its water supply and, if it does, what kinds of clean water protections will be put in place, given that we are entering an era of clean water insecurity; how aggressive will the state be in moving against plastic pollution that threatens Narragansett Bay; and whether or not the state will invest more money in behind-the-meter solar energy, rather than in big utility-sized solar farms.
The power of organized, engaged communities to make their voices known has proven to be an important influencer in changing how such decisions get made. Make no mistake: there are powerful corporate forces organized to heap derision upon the proposed Green New Deal, just as there are similar powerful corporate forces aligned to undercut the proposed single-payer health system, often referred to Medicare for All.
Speaking up, speaking out, having the courage and the willingness to stand up and say no, will become important factors in the months ahead.

Editors Note: Here is an opinion piece by Dr. Michael Fine, sharing his thoughts following a recent visit to Paradise, Calif., the site of devastating Camp Fire, and his views on the thinness of our current lives and our inability to change as individuals and as a community. It is published in the interest of promoting convergence, conversation and dialogue.

PARADISE, Calif. – What struck me most about Paradise was how thin it made our lives look. You see that thinness in what is left after the fire burned away the veneer.

I drove north from Sacramento in the rain. I’ve been something of a climate change minimizer, though not a frank denier. Yes, climate change is real. Yes there will be huge human impacts over time. But those impacts: sea level rise, floods, bigger storms with more casualties, new deserts, the melting of the polar ice caps and the disappearance of glaciers, colder winters and hotter summers in temperate places, and hot places becoming progressive uninhabitable, always seemed to me like Old Testament justice, but Old Testament justice we can adapt to.

The Old Testament justice is the notion of collective transgression and subsequent collective punishment: we aren’t attending to God’s law as a people, so we as a people get struck down.

In our case, over the last hundred years, we somehow didn’t get that overpopulation, consumer capitalism and conspicuous consumption was a bad thing, so God is getting his revenge, and sending a rash of new plagues to strike us down.

There are too many of us; we use too much; we are arrogant; we’ve polluted the air, land and water – and climate change is the expected consequence of such behavior.

At the same time, I always figured we’d adapt to climate changes as they occur.

We can move people from the flooding coast to higher ground by building new cities higher up.

We can build buildings that can withstand hurricanes and tornadoes.

We can change to renewable energy, so we stop ruining the atmosphere quite so quickly, and so forth.

When confronted with the consequences of our bad behavior, we’d change our ways – too slowly to prevent climate change, perhaps, but quickly enough to avert most major catastrophes.

On the road to Paradise
The road out of Sacramento takes you into the Central Valley, the huge swath of flat, fertile, sun-drenched agricultural land that has just enough light, water and a temperate climate to be the most productive agricultural land in the world.

I passed acres and acres of fields planted in rows that stretch as far as the eye can see, and acres and acres of orchards that grow almonds, walnuts, apricots and oranges. It’s winter in California, which means it has rained, and the land is green, though the trees are without leaves, waiting for longer days and warmer air to bring back blossoms, leaves and fruit. The towns seem Midwestern – little places at crossroads, few people, a few horses pastured here and there, the occasional bar, convenience store or gas station, but nothing of any substance.

Then, about 85 miles north of Sacramento, the land becomes hilly and the road begins to climb, gently at first, and then suddenly, weaving across switchbacks and beside deep ravines.

There are herds of beef cattle pastured on the hill country, Black Angus or red and white Herefords. The grass is really green on the rolling foothills and hillsides from the recent winter rains, and there is nothing like the scorched earth I expected to see.

About four miles from Paradise, right near the airport, suddenly, there were blackened trees on both sides of the road. I had to look closely to sort out what was going on: Some trees were blackened. Some of those blackened trees had been dropped by chainsaw and bucked into logs, their stumps lining the road like broken teeth.

Other trees, mostly evergreens, still had green needles and appeared to be alive. The ground beneath the trees was green with new grass and underbrush that had sprung up after the fire, watered by the rains that had helped put the fire out.

A complex system
The Earth is a complex system: first drought; then fire; then rain; then regrowth.

As I climbed higher, the green was replaced by black. About three miles from the center of Paradise, I saw the first burned-out home site, a place where a house had once stood and was now just a chimney, burned metal, black ground and a burned-out car.

Suddenly there are pickup trucks, bulldozers, burned out cars and chain-link fencing everywhere. The “Welcome to Paradise” sign had a sheet of 4 x 8 plywood behind it, a new sign threatening looters with shooting and then being buried by a backhoe, an updated spray-painted version of the vigilante language of the Old West.

So much for paradise, real or imagined; the American experience had come home to roost. I had entered the fire zone.

The fire zone
The Camp Fire [named for Camp Creek Road, the road closest to where the fire had begun] started at about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018. There had been concerns about the Paradise area for years. Other communities built on wooded hillsides had burned after dry summers; fires that started in the fall were quickly magnified into firestorms by strong eastern winds, which scattered burning embers onto buildings, trees and dry brush-land. Paradise was at particular risk.

There had been a dry summer, and there was plenty of fuel – much of the surrounding woodlands had seen no fire activity in 80 years, and so it was thick with dry wood and brush.

The electric transmission lines were old and in poor shape – in the spring, the electric utility had received permission to rebuild much of that infrastructure, which itself was 100 years old.

The fall rains typically begin to fall around Nov. 1, but there had been no rain yet as of Nov. 8, and so the electric utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, had warned its customers that it might cut power for a few days if the wind picked up, conscious of the danger. But then it apparently failed to do that.

We don’t know for certain what started the Camp Fire. We do know that at about 6:15 a.m., a problem was reported on a PG&E power transmission line near Pulga, about seven miles from Paradise, an exurb and retirement community of about 28,000 residents.

At 6:33 a.m., a fire was reported near Camp Creek Road in Pulga, and then there was a report that power lines were down. The first fire company on the scene arrived 10 minutes later, just before sunrise, and observed “extreme” fire behavior, and radioed an urgent request for resources and evacuations.

The fire arrived at the little community of Concow, population 710, at about 7 a.m., before an evacuation notice could even be issued. Concow was engulfed in flames and leveled in a few minutes.

The fire reached Paradise about 8 a.m. By 11 am, a little more than four hours after the fire started seven miles away, 18,000 buildings were burning or destroyed, 85 people were dead and numerous people were injured.

No surprises
There aren’t really any surprises when you drive into Paradise itself. Most buildings are gone, though there are a few houses and stores still standing, so the place looks more like a campground or a shopping mall than it does like a community.

You see empty space where houses were. No little neighborhoods anymore, but it’s not possible to know if there were streets of neighborhoods there in the first place. There were white-on-blue fabric FEMA advertising flags on the main street, flapping in the wind, which look exactly like the signs gas stations and discount mattress stores use to attract attention to businesses, only these flags are advertising FEMA.

Burned-out cars and trucks are everywhere, often sitting under burned-out carports, which gave the place a skeletal quality. There was usually nothing left of the burned-down houses besides a burned-out washer and dryer, a burned-out wood stove, and sometimes a burned-out refrigerator, kitchen stove and dishwasher, often set near a chimney.

The chimneys rise above the black earth and the debris like grave makers, ghoulish reminders of the human life that had once been there, one person or two people to a chimney, that had disappeared in a puff of smoke with the roofs and garage doors and furniture and pictures on the wall.

A legacy of dead trees
Trees have been dying all over California for 10 years. Some 18 million trees died last year, way more than the one million trees that usually die of “natural causes.”

There are some 147 million dead trees standing all across the state, in forests and in neighborhoods, ready to catch fire if and when someone – or something – lights a match.

Some of these tree deaths were a consequence of the seven-year drought [2010-2017], itself biblical in severity. Other tree deaths were due to very hot summers and bark beetle infestations.

We know about the tree death because we have new fancy technological tools to measure it, tools we just didn’t have 10 years ago. But what we don’t know with certainty is how unusual this kind of tree die-off is. Is it a phenomenon that occurs once in a hundred or 500 hundred years naturally, part of the cyclic nature of geology and ecology, as the Earth grows and develops over time? Or is this amount of tree death something new, one more line of evidence in the unfolding story about how human habitation is soiling the Earth, about how our appetites are destroying the Garden of Eden which we were given?

One of the hard parts of the climate change story is sorting out how many of the changes are normal variations or the cyclical behavior of Earth and ecology, and how many climate disasters are human caused and preventable.

Even those 147 million dead trees are confusing, because it turns out that dead trees alone don’t make fires, that you need a combination of fuel, weather, heat, dryness and even human habitation for a “normal” fire to become a disaster. If the fires had burned the ridge on which Paradise sits and no one lived there, would we have called it a disaster? If a tree falls in a forest…

A patchwork quilt
The patchwork quality – most buildings gone, some completely intact – created an unworldly quality to Paradise. On car lots, perfectly good cars with red and green stickers advertising year, make, and model stood next to cars that have been burned out, their bodies gray-green from fire, and their windows blown out by the heat of the fire.

The washers and dryers, now also gray-green from the smoke and the heat, each having a central cavity that looked something like an eye socket, making the rash of two appliances standing together look like skulls. More downed trees with black bark have been dropped and cut into logs. There are thousands of tree stumps, which look like pockmarks, the scars of a place that had once been green and shady.

Almost all the “intact” stores were closed. The wrecked commercial buildings were now hunks of twisted metal, their thin metal walls and thin metal roofing buckled, twisted and black, and so distorted that it was hard to imagine that these heaps of scrap metal were once buildings where goods were bought and sold, where cars and trucks were sold or repaired and where deals were made.

The population of the United States has doubled in my lifetime. The population of the world has tripled in that period. The good news is that the world population is expected to start to level off, by about 2100, when that population exceeds 10 billion.

But we don’t know how climate change will impact that growth. And, we don’t know if the human species will have learned anything by then, strategies that we can put into practice from what we have learned.

Climate change in action?
So were the Camp Fire and the destruction of Paradise a result of climate change? The best answer is maybe. And sort of. But not only that.

No one knows if the die-off of California trees was the result of climate change or whether those trees died as a result of cyclic variation and the interaction of climate and biology.

No one knows if dead trees alone made the fire, or if the fire also resulted from dry conditions, themselves possibly, even likely a result of climate change but perhaps also the result of natural variation.

We do know that an electric line went down the morning of the fire, where the fire started. And, we do know that there were 28,000 people living on a ridge, among all those trees, downwind from the place the fire began, people who wouldn’t have died or been burned out if they hadn’t been there at all, people who wouldn’t have died or been burned out if there weren’t electric wires in a canyon seven miles away.

Lessons learned
Is there a lesson from Paradise? Perhaps some apparent lessons that don’t get at the truth. Don’t build communities in fire-prone forests. Keep the electric lines in good repair. Turn off the power in dry conditions when the wind blows. Build better evacuation routes from isolated areas. And so forth.

But the real lesson is the one that we, as a people, don’t want to learn. We still don’t have humility or self control as individuals or as a people. We appear to be unable to see what is right before our eyes. Unable to hear. And unable to change.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Sometimes we can change ourselves, as individuals. But we haven’t figured out how to act together and be together – how to change together – and we as a people haven’t figured out how to make the most of this place and this life we have given.

What’s thin about our lives are the excuses we all make for one another, in the service of getting by, because changing together is so hard. Little houses in the woods on a ridge. More people than the Earth can comfortably support. Growth for its own sake. The notion of individual freedom, even when it puts us all at risk. The sin of pride. We can’t find ways to ask one another to change and do that with dignity and mutual respect. And we choose not to listen.

We should be able to be better than this. Our struggle isn’t just about climate change; our struggle is learning to live together, in pursuit of the common good. The lesson from Paradise, if there is one, is that we as a people haven’t figured out how to behave yet. Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden. And got thrown out. Doesn’t look like we’ve learned a thing.

Dr. Michael Fine is writer, community organizer and family doctor. He is the chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls, the senior clinical and population health officer for Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, Inc.

Fine is also the author of author of Health Care Revolt (PM Press 2018 – and the forthcoming novel, Abundance (PM Press 2019

Fine served as the director of the R.I. Department of Health from 2011-2015.

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