“The fire roared through so quick it was only an hour of utter panic and fear because then everything burned out.”
— JT Ford, Paradise, California, resident on watching his farmhouse burn down
Two weeks have passed; two towns have passed away.
Two weeks ago, this column described how the town of Mexico Beach, Florida, was 95 percent destroyed when Hurricane Michael roared through it. Today’s column sadly laments the total destruction of Paradise, California, by a wildfire.
Except for the close timing of the two events, one might dismiss them as being unrelated. Oceanside Mexico Beach, population 1,200, is a continent away from the hill town of Paradise, population 27,000 — and was destroyed by wind, not fire.
But there is a connection, of course: both towns were lost to natural disasters intensified by climate change. Even the timing of their demise is related: climate change has extended both the Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane season and the West Coast fire season, so they now consistently overlap.
What these, and the uptick of catastrophic climate events worldwide, demonstrate is that we are in the beginning phases not only of climate change, but of the crises it engenders. Entire populated islands are being devastated; whole towns are disappearing. It is upon us, and we need to take emergency adaptive measures to reduce further losses.
Two terms, “mitigation” and “adaptation” (or “adaption”), describe the principal strategies for addressing climate change. Mitigation means reducing the rate of climate change itself by drastically reducing our greenhouse gas output. If we fail to mitigate climate change, civilization will not survive.
But it is too late for total mitigation. There is already too much “legacy carbon” in the atmosphere to prevent significant global temperature rise and its effects. All we can do about the effects already in play is to try adapting our agriculture and infrastructure to weather them, reducing the loss of life, property and the productive capacity of our farms and forests.
Think of adaptation — upon which the global economy will spend a significant portion of its capital in the coming decades — as a strategic retreat in our thus far unsuccessful battle to mitigate climate change. Adapting can protect us and buy us time as we struggle to get our mitigation efforts on track.
Unfortunately, there is little individuals acting on their own can do to implement adaptation measures. If someone owned a 100 percent sustainable home in Paradise, it’s gone.
But there is a great deal individuals can do to support the efforts of communities and all levels of government to take adaptive measures. A case in point is the fire abatement project undertaken near the town of Sisters, Oregon, by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP), a group consisting of loggers, environmentalists, local officials and interested citizens.
In the spring of 2017, DCFP, working with the U.S. Forest Service, thinned (not clear cut!) the forests around Sisters, creating a fire buffer zone. A fierce, rapidly spreading wildfire struck the area that August, forcing outlying residents to flee into town — where they were safe because firefighters were able to stop the advancing flames at the buffer zone.
In September 2018, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (Oregon) introduced a bill that would fund the Forest Service and other federal agencies to work with local communities to create collaborative projects similar to the DCFP throughout the Western states. Writing letters of support for Merkley’s bill and/or volunteering to sit on local committees addressing adaptation are things ordinary citizens can do.
Could a DCFP-style thinning have saved Paradise? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
But what we do know is that in every region of America, the time for an all-hands-on-deck adaptation effort has arrived — because as historical geology teaches us, species that don’t adapt to their changing environment die out at our ecological house.