Those of us who live in Southern California are geographically blessed with a Mediterranean climate that brings us gorgeous weather year-round, well-loved beaches and marine life, sprawling mountains and woodlands, and breathtaking desert scenes.
Unfortunately, climate change places much at stake for Southern California as we face a future with more severe droughts and heat waves. The California Energy Commission estimates average temperatures in California could rise 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if we don’t act now to curb our emissions. With warmer temperatures, California could see up to 70-90% decrease in the spring snowpack of the Sierra Nevada, the source of up to half of the state’s water supply in the warmer months.
With increased temperatures, droughts and a shrinking water supply, we could see conditions that make fires throughout the state more challenging for firefighters and more threatening to people and property. While Southern Californians are no strangers to the fires that are a part of natural ecosystems, without real action on global warming, growing populations living in fire prone areas could be subject to fires in the wildland-urban interface that are increasingly dangerous and more difficult to control. If the United States does not act now to implement the solutions to climate change, we could be putting more Southern California residents and firefighters at greater risk in the future.
In order to understand better what the future may hold for so many in the region, I started talking to Southern Californians who already know too well the challenges that wildfires bring. Karen Telleen-Lawton, is an environmentalist, economist, writer, and mother of two who has been a resident of Santa Barbara since 1980. Well-versed in local ecology and fire preparation, Telleen-Lawton and her family were well prepared with an evacuation checklist for the Jesusita Fire of spring May 2009. It was only months earlier that her family was forced to evacuate their home in the November 2008 Tea Fire.
When Karen received a phone call from her neighbor alerting her to the oncoming Jesusita Fire, her family immediately sprang into action protecting the areas surrounding their home, packing family valuables and keepsakes in the car, and assisting their neighbors. After law enforcement showed up at their home and ordered them to evacuate, the Telleen-Lawtons traveled to stay with nearby family where they tensely waited overnight to hear news of the fire tearing through their community. The next morning, Karen and her family returned to their neighborhood to find to their relief that their house had been spared by the blazes, and to their dismay that some of their neighbors were not so fortunate.
After a week, the family was finally able to safely return to their home and found their backyard severely burned. Additionally, a yurt that had sat in their backyard and had been a home to Telleen-Lawton’s son and other guests for years was completely destroyed. Karen and her family have been working to repair and revitalize their property since the Jesusita Fire. The whole ordeal has been tremendously challenging for Telleen-Lawton, both in her efforts to mend her own home, and in her sadness for her neighbors who lost their homes entirely in the fire.
Karen’s story is a story that is shared by many Southern Californians year after year. While wildfires are a part of life here, we could be putting more people at greater risk in the future if we do not act now to implement the solutions to climate change. We know that the actions taken by President Obama and other world leaders in Copenhagen last week were inadequate for protecting our climate. California has a track record of taking strong action for the climate, and we must work harder to take our message to the rest of the US, and the rest of the world.