When people used to ask me where I’m from, they would smile and shake their heads in disbelief when I said Paradise. “Paradise?” they would ask. “Where is that?”
Now, when I tell them I’m from Paradise, I’m met with a heaviness that serves as a solemn reminder that my beloved hometown was destroyed by the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Wildfires are nothing new in California. But due to the effects of climate change, the fires are becoming more frequent and more severe with each passing year — exacerbated by the rising temperatures and unprecedented heat waves that have gripped our region.
I’ll never forget the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, when my boss called me just as I was about to walk out the door. “I heard on the radio that there is a fire in Butte County. It’s heading towards Paradise.” I wasn’t too concerned. There had been fires before, but they were never that serious.
I called my brother. I could hear the panic in his voice. He said he could see the fire coming over the ridge and hear exploding propane tanks in the distance.
The 2018 Camp Fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, including my family’s. Luckily, my loved ones escaped safely, but the friends and family of the 85 people who lost their lives will be forever scarred.
Paradise’s story is only a snapshot of the climate disasters that billions of people across the world are facing. We’re all breathing polluted air, trying to stay cool in unprecedented heat and packing emergency bags in case climate disasters force us to evacuate our homes.
This summer has exemplified the relentless nature of the climate crisis. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths and directly tied to the changing climate.
In California, we’ve already faced record drought, unbelievable heat waves, and more fires. Death Valley just broke the all-time world heat record for the second year in a row. And the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon — the largest active wildfire in the country — has displaced more than 2,000 people.
It is clear that we must urgently invest in resilience measures to protect our families, our homes and our most vulnerable. We already know that wildfires have an extremely disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities — up to six times more than for white communities.
We must forge a cohesive, diverse movement to end the injustices perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry, save more lands and waters that can improve our climate resilience, and advance the equitable and just solutions we need to fight climate change.
My own U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, introduced the Wildfire Emergency Act to help fire-smart communities invest in critical infrastructure, energy grid resilience, forest restoration, and distribution of resources to our most at-risk neighbors. All of these efforts will help improve our response and safety when the next Camp Fire takes hold.
The reality is: the longer we wait to deal with climate change, the more frequently we will hear of stories like my own. The climate crisis will certainly have long-term damage on our economy, but the loss of lives and destruction is incalculable.
We must cultivate resilience in the face of the increasing and varied consequences of the climate crisis. Through community-driven solutions, we will be able to combat climate disruption and work toward safer communities and a livable planet for everyone.
Molly Culton is an organizer with the Sierra Club’s California Chapter.