“I recall growing up on the central coast regularly driving through fog so thick you had to keep your speed low and fog lights on, and still then not seeing much. Now, it is rare to have the fog so thick and wet and close to the ground. It is also not as reliable as it used to be, consistently rolling in at 3pm and out at 10am, hugging the ground and bringing moisture, all year round except during the rainy season. Now it does come, but usually in higher cloud cover that offers less moisture, and for fewer months of the year. This is thanks to a warming ocean, which reduces the differential between ocean and land air mass temperatures, and therefore reduces the driver of marine fog. Combined with lower precipitation and snow pack this year, wildfire conditions are amplified and primed, with dried out soils and plants lacking defense.
But there is something else blocking my vision now and it’s not fog. August 2020 in California saw temperatures of up to 130 degrees fahrenheit, possibly the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth and atypical dry thunderstorms delivering over 12,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours, igniting 7,500+ wildfires, including 3 of the largest 4 ever recorded in state history. Fires in eastern Washington leveled a small town of 200 residents, including the fire station, police station, and library… And the fires that have been moving through Colorado shut down the main transportation artery, I-70, for 2 weeks, causing a major logistics snarl up that affected anyone trying to move goods east/west through the mountains.
While a normal fire season in California year sees ~300,000 acres burned, nearly 2.2 million acres have burned in California already this year, causing the worst air quality in the world for any metropolitan area… and we are only at the beginning of fire season.
But long before our annual fire season started getting so bad, people of color and low-income communities were already dealing with the toll of climate change. Redlining and other racist policies have ensured that Black and Brown Americans disproportionately inhabit frontline communities – those that experience the “first and worst” impacts of climate change and pollution, leading to higher than average rates of cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory ailments – and now death from COVID-19. Here in the Bay Area, Richmond, CA is home to a Chevron refinery that has been wreaking havoc on the local community for decades and was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state. Coupled with lower incomes and lack of access to affordable quality healthcare and food, it’s no wonder that Black Americans are “three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts” (Qz.com).
While “Spare the Air” commercials may encourage us to “telecommute”, we are now waking up to the fact that working from home isn’t going to save us from climate change – but firefighters are on the frontlines trying to prevent our state from burning down. Yet our state remains critically short on desperately needed firefighters. In recent years, roughly 20% of California’s firefighters have been inmates. This year, however, many of those inmate firefighters were sent home or put on lockdown, as part of a necessary effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in crowded prisons. After being released (whether due to time served or COVID-19), it becomes virtually impossible for inmates to gain employment in municipal fire departments because their criminal record denies them the right to obtain the necessary certifications. One small step of potential progress is a bill, AB 2147, that just passed the Assembly and is pending in the State Senate, that would allow inmate firefighters to have an easier path at having their records expunged.
Let’s continue to raise awareness of this issue and fight for inmates who deserve a second chance. Not just because we need firefighters, but because the lifelong stigmatization of ex-offenders perpetuates a racially unjust society, and all of the disadvantages that come along with that. And we have to ask ourselves if those sentences were even fair, in the first place. What is needed is action on all fronts – individual, private sector and public sector. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to be vocal, to call for our political leaders and for large corporations to step up and take action for both climate justice and racial justice. We can’t have one without the other. This November, when you vote on climate policy, remember that we are talking not only about something huge and long-term, but voting for the health and safety of people today, right here, our neighbors. And when we vote on issues of racial justice, police and criminal justice reform, we must not overlook the importance of our local and state ballot. Now is the time to wake up and demand change. We might not win every battle but there are many things worth fighting for.”
– Jane Franch
Director, Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability