Rainy Season Reflections: Wildfires & Climate Change

By Kevin Keys, PhD

The rainy season in Northern California may feel like a hopeful sign and the end of a cycle. Perhaps our parched and fire-scarred lands can finally begin to heal from the raging wildfires of the fall season? However, we cannot be lulled into a false complacency. If Northern California’s 2017 and 2018 firestorms are any indication, the chances of more frequent wildfires in the state are quite high. So the question we must all answer sooner rather than later is what are doing to be more engaged and aware as we face the life-altering effects of extreme weather?

A shot of the Bay Bridge on my morning commute. (October 2018) Photo: Kevin L. Keys
The same view, one month later. The apparent fog is wildfire smoke. Photo: Kevin L. Keys

The immediate fallout from these deadly infernos is massive and widespread: they affect livelihoods, cause costly damages, leave people and fauna without a home, take lives, endanger public health, and exacerbate chronic conditions. I have lived with asthma for the better part of 25 years. For those who suffer asthma, poor air quality can easily disrupt day-to-day activities at best or trigger an attack, at worst. During last year’s Camp Fire, I had to make adjustments to keep a severe asthma attack at bay given that non-smoky air was at least a three-hour drive away from home. On November 16 — the worst air quality day in San Francisco’s history — I wore an N95 mask to simply buy groceries.

The wildfire smoke blanketing the Oakland Airport. I took this shot right before my Thanksgiving break flight. Photo: Kevin L. Keys

The economic impacts of climate change are evident and mounting. But, what we should particularly pay attention to — and specifically affects my work studying the genetic basis of asthma — is the link between this respiratory affectation and climate change, which has been made repeatedly, and tends to affect vulnerable communities the worst. The escalating threat of wildfires is a prime example. The 2017 Napa County fires displaced many migrant farmworkers, who are struggling to reestablish themselves more than a year later. More recently, we’ve seen images of farmworkers working fields in Oxnard as the Woolsey Fire tore through Ventura County. Fire or no fire, these workers often lack adequate equipment to work in hazardous or smoky conditions.

A Ventura County field worker wearing a N95 respirator mask similar to the one I wore to go to the grocery store. Photo: Cause Oxnard Organization

To be clear: not only is climate change real, but it is the challenge and crisis of our times. No one will be spared from its effects. The California infernos of the last 24 months — not to mention the multitude of climate related disasters across the country — should have sparked bold policy action. Instead, the response has been meager at best, and obstructive at worst. For example, the utilities attempting to free themselves from the mounting costs of wildfires by passing the buck onto its consumers with an electricity rate hike is a short-sighted action that would hurt our pocketbooks and not even address the real issue at hand.

With decades of climate change science at our disposal — and the ability to bring together diverse stakeholders ranging from law and policy makers to scientists, activists, economists, and farmers — we are in the best position possible to be make sound evidence-based policy decisions. Instead, we see companies scrambling to protect their bottom line and repeated attempts in the current presidential administration to undermine or repeal climate action progress to the detriment of vulnerable communities that are first and worst affected by the impacts of climate change.

The rainy season is keeping wildfires in check — for now. However, we can’t rely on precipitation alone to solve our problems, climate-related or otherwise. That’s why I am speaking out for improved and more effective public policies: policies that are blind to political ideology, based on objective science, and crafted to reflect our nation’s diverse populations. And, I hope more voices will join me. Otherwise, wearing an N95 mask for everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping, could be the least of our worries.

Kevin L. Keys is a postdoctoral scholar in the Burchard Lab at the UCSF School of Medicine and a member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).