It seems a lifetime ago that my husband and I awoke in the middle of the night to a loud rumble. My immediate thought was that drunk teenagers were setting off firecrackers, which happens from time to time in my Bay Area suburb. But the noise was followed by flashes of brightness, and we realized with astonishment that it was a thunderstorm, a true weather rarity around here. I opened up the shades, wanting to experience the storm in all its fullness — I used to live in Texas where thunderstorms came up so quickly and powerfully that I would simply pull to the side of the road and wait for them to pass — but I eventually fell asleep.
Maybe people more knowledgeable than me, meteorologists or scientists, heard the crashing of the thunder and experienced worry instead of excitement. Because within a few days we were paying dearly for our nighttime adventure, as the forests exploded into fire, sending smoke to blanket the region. Everyone was thrown into disarray. Lives already adjusting to at-home school and work, now had to retreat indoors despite our famed California weather. For weeks, parents in my neighborhood checked air-quality readings before letting their kids go outside. Hellscape became a common word, or post-apocalyptic.
And my family and neighbors were the lucky ones. In our area, wind usually whips down from the hills as the afternoon wears on. So even if we were held hostage inside, we often got a chance to get fresh-enough air by early evening. Other friends I heard from had a much harder time, packing bags in case they had to evacuate, leaving their homes despite the threat of Covid to stay with friends in nearby cities. One friend even saw firefighters clearing the trees just outside her property line.
Then two days ago, we woke up to a morning several shades darker than sunset, black mixed with hints of orange — exactly what you’d imagine your world would look like after a nuclear bomb. It was our own day after.
We tried to continue like it was a regular Wednesday, despite the lamps blazing and the night sky outside. I never ventured farther than my front porch. The day unfurled in a blur punctuated by junk food — what was the point of healthy eating when the end was near? And then toward evening the sky lightened a bit, and we made dinner.
The next day dawned even worse. While sunlight snuck through the layer of smoke, the air grew hazier and thick. I spent another day on the couch, fantasizing about my exercise bike in the backyard studio now littered with flecks of ash that had filtered in through the open windows. I attempted to bury myself in work, but by Friday afternoon, I allowed a thought that had been growing louder to take voice: The president of the United States had watched these events unfold and said nothing. And I wasn’t surprised.
What does it say about a nation where the people no longer expect protection from their leader, or even basic humanity? On Friday, Amber Phillips wrote in the Washington Post, “The president’s relative silence on the West’s wildfire crisis matches up with his relative silence on three other issues: the struggles of Democratic-led states, climate change, and crises that require empathy.” These three issues are not surprising. The president has never bothered to conceal his hatred for blue states, lashing out against them for rejecting him in the 2016 election; he doesn’t believe in science; and when Bob Woodward asked if he was trying to empathize with Black Americans for their anger and pain, Trump answered, “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that way at all.”
But I’m fairly certain there is more to it. In California, Oregon and Washington, we are experiencing wildfires of “historic proportions” with no end in sight and likely resulting in mass fatalities. How are we expected to feel like we are part of a union of states? Or is that the point?
Friday at 6 p.m., as I sat down to write, Trump tweeted “THANK YOU” to the Western firefighters, claiming “We are with them all the way!” But in California, we are too busy to pay him any attention. As our Governor Gavin Newsom explained while touring the fires in Butte County, “This is a climate damn emergency.” On January 20, 2021, I hope to look eastward once again to responsible, compassionate leadership — and will work hard to make that happen — but until then, on the West Coast, we look for help elsewhere.
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