November 29, 2018

KIM | California Is Still Home

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For 17 days, the surface of the Earth flipped inside out, unleashing the ghastly pits of Hell. A paradise of a state and the town of Paradise itself were demolished, engulfed in the rapacious, formidable flames. Seeing the photos and videos, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first heard about the California wildfires. Entire houses were completely reduced to black wood chips. Cars were melted into the street like chocolate on a hot summer day. The life-size model of the town mascot was distorted into a grotesque, indistinguishable blob, its welcoming grin oozing down its face.

The fires first ignited on November 9 and were reported to be fully contained on November 26. For 17 days, thousands upon thousands of families evacuated from their beloved homes to live in tent communities or the Walmart parking lot. Firefighters fought the furious forces of nature with full power and effort, putting their lives on the line. The number of lives lost and individuals missing increased with every tragic day. In the end, 85 lives were lost, 296 individuals are estimated to be unaccounted for or missing, approximately 14,000 residences were destroyed and land the size of Chicago was charred by the Camp Wildfire alone, according to The Washington Post.

This end-of-the-world, apocalyptic event is still hard for me to believe. I feel chills whenever I visualize the towering flames completely swallowing a house within minutes, incinerating everything in its path. I can’t even imagine the devastation of losing a loved one to these ravaging infernos. It reminded me of the hypothetical situation where I would have to choose two things to bring with me if my house was burning down. Except now it wasn’t hypothetical, and these families couldn’t “choose” anything. They were busy saving their own lives.

A nightmare molding into reality, all these families went from having everything to nothing. Despite having lost nearly everything, though, California is still home to these individuals. A few of my friends asked out of genuine curiosity, “If California has such destructive wildfires, why do people still live there?” It’s an understandable question from the perspective of someone who’s never lived in California. I was born and raised in California. To me, the state is more than just sunshine, beaches and avocado toast. It’s the diversity and the ease of finding a comfortable niche, the underrated local donut shops and thrift stores, the childhood neighbors, the same dog-walkers I would see every day, the colorful flower beds decorating the front yards, the streets bustling with life and movement and the distinguished public-school education I was so lucky to have. To my parents who are immigrants, California holds a whole other meaning. To them, California is a land of final and only hope — it’s the land of opportunity and chance, from education to occupation and for mere survival.

And in the background of this scene of dreams, small fires lit up the hills when the summer season came around, accompanying the busy freeways on a regular basis, resulting in patches of black in the yellow hills. These miniature induced fires have always been our protection; they were typical and almost routine. However, the wildfires that rip through the land are gradually becoming more uncontrollable, vicious and murderous with every year, despite the efforts to increase management of the forests themselves, fuel use and controlled burning.

With the rising temperatures and melting ice caps, it’s clear why the forests would shrivel and burst into flames. California’s already dry enough — the rising temperatures are only tremendously intensifying the hellish wildfires. It has even been estimated in a New York Times article that “half as much forest area would have burned between 1984 and 2015 in a world not warmed by climate change,” according to Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich. Half as much forest area over the course of about 30 years! If we imagine a world where climate change was truly absent, there would be fewer wildfires, smaller hurricanes, moderate rain and sea levels, fewer droughts, well-preserved ecosystems, thriving agriculture and stable infrastructure. We would have lived in a healthy, happy utopia.

Unfortunately, our reality consists of calamitous disasters, acidic waters, reduced species diversity and poor air quality to name just a few. Despite this grim truth, though, families of the California wildfires woke up Thanksgiving morning to paper bags decorated with warm-hearted words of encouragement containing fresh, homemade gourmet turkey dinners. Just like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, our inherent, fundamental sense of compassion represents the glimmer of hope that our humanity must rely on to breathe life back into our decaying planet.

Despite it all, the citizens of California continue to pursue the dream, the last chance, they came to achieve. This place I and many others call home has been devastated by a force of disaster mankind has nurtured through poor environmental care. Many friends and family members have been lost from the wildfires that devastated California this year, and seeing the horrifying line graphs and real statistical reports presented by NASA, I’ve realized how much the state of our very own species is balancing on a thin line. The fires of Hell have risen, and before the demons break loose, let’s all cherish the world we have left.

Alexia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. Who, What, Where, Why? runs every other Friday this semester. She can be reached at alexiakim@cornellsun.com.