WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY KILIII YÜYAN
California is in an awful drought, and summertime is rapidly approaching. The Frontline dives into the environmental justice aspects of wildfire season.
Whenever May rolls around, my mind goes to a few places. There’s that initial, Yay, spring! Then, Yay, summer is almost here! But that pretty quickly devolves into, Oh, no, summer!
For those of us in the climate world, summer means two things: hurricanes and wildfires. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the state’s drought emergency Monday. You know what that means: We’re in for another hellish year. In fact, the National Interagency Fire Center is expecting “significant fire potential” across the state.
“[The drought] creates conditions that lead to a more receptive fuel bed that will manifest earlier in the year than when we get a ‘normal’ amount of rain,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Issac Sanchez in a statement to Atmos. “The fuel moisture levels now are at levels that we usually see in late June.”
Welcome to The Frontline, where the impending disaster season looms. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. While no one’s safe from extreme wildfires—not even rich-ass celebrities—these wildfires don’t impact everyone equally. That’s true for the families trying to escape the inferno and the firefighters running into it—for the Black and Brown children whose vulnerable respiratory systems suffer from this pollution-filled air.
In March, new research found that wildfire smoke is more harmful to human health than from other sources, such as car exhaust. The team of scientists at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography published this research in Nature Communications, highlighting the urgency of the uncontrollable wildfire crisis the West often faces once summer rolls around. This is especially alarming given the ongoing pandemic and California’s new emergency drought declaration in 41 out of 58 counties.
Smokey Bear said it best: “Wildfire season has already begun.” Where he’s wrong is that you and I can’t do much to stop it. Only the people in power can—and what they need to do is take bold climate action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, the ones who will suffer the most will be lower-income and BIPOC communities.
While history has shown us enough to expect that, researchers formally assessed wildfire impacts on communities and published their findings in a 2018 paper. More than 29 million people in the U.S. face the very real potential of an extreme wildfire. A fraction of those people—12 million, to be exact—would be devastated by such an event. That means they don’t have the financial means to rebuild from the ashes or the insurance to recuperate their losses. They may not have a vehicle to facilitate an evacuation. They’re at increased risk for a number of factors. Or perhaps they’re single-parent households or lack English skills. This is how the authors measured vulnerability.
And race has got everything to do with it: An area’s vulnerability increased as its population included more Black, Latine, and Native American populations. The whiter the data, the less vulnerable.
This reality is critical as we enter this year’s wildfire season, especially with California’s worsening drought. Community members aren’t the only ones at risk. Across the West, several states—including California and Arizona—use prison labor to help fight wildfires. The pandemic has complicated California’s Fire Camp program as mandatory 14-day quarantines must take place before the incarcerated firefighters can head to camp post-training. There has also been a “continued drop,” Sanchez said, in the number of incarcerated firefighters. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has fully vaccinated more than 67 percent of its population, but it doesn’t break down the data by the fire camp populations. The training centers, at least, have around half of their populations fully vaccinated.
The state is looking to hire an additional 1,400 firefighters to staff crews, Sanchez said. Every day these firefighters—incarcerated or free—head to an active fire, they put their lives at risks. That risk has only increased with the pandemic, which continues to rage on. In California, alone, 33 people died last year. More than four million acres burned—every particle of organic matter drifting off with the winds where it can end up in someone’s lungs. This may not kill people overnight, but the exposure is a slow kind of death—the kind that kills more than four million people a year. Research has linked increased exposure to air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates though scientists have yet to publish anything on exposure to wildfire smoke, in particular.
Air pollution is no joke, especially as a highly contagious virus that attacks our respiratory systems is mutating with the hopes of killing more of us. As we embark on the worst time of year for climate disasters, let’s not forget—and let’s stay vigilant. Injustice is, unfortunately, inevitable. At least for now.