by Denise Minor
The sky was growing dark by the time I checked in at the Red Cross station on a recent afternoon, in front of the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico. Two volunteers in red vests greeted me and welcomed me to the shelter for Camp Fire evacuees.
Red Cross Communications Director Stephen Walsh offered to show me around. On that night there were about 700 people staying at the shelter, with some living in their recreational vehicles in the parking lot, some living in a tent city behind the RVs and some living in the three dormitories. All six of the Red Cross shelters that had been opened right after the fire had by then been consolidated to this one.
Walsh asked me about the story I was writing. I told him that I wanted to ask people whether they now blamed climate change for the intensity of the inferno that had destroyed their homes and, perhaps, taken the lives of loved ones.
“It’s too early to ask that question,” Walsh said. “The people here are despondent and angry. They had no insurance, they lost everything and all they can think about are their immediate needs.”
I began to rethink the way I would handle the interview, what it would be possible to talk about and look for during this visit.
The infamous November Camp Fire in Northern California, I imagined, indelibly changed those who lost homes, schools, jobs and family members. Over a month after the fire, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if it also changed the way some evacuees were thinking about climate change.
Polls show that while most Americans favor action to slow climate change, resistance comes primarily from a sector of the Republican Party. Those voters believe that the impact of human-caused climate change has been exaggerated or may even be non-existent.
And in Paradise, most voters still favor Republican candidates. In November, 61.5 percent of voters threw their support to incumbent Congressman Doug LaMalfa, a Republican. In the 2016 election, almost 62 percent voted for President Donald Trump.
Along the pathways inside the shelter stood men, mostly alone, smoking cigarettes. In the dusk punctuated by beams of street lights, their faces were obscured by the shadows of their brimmed caps and cowboy hats.
We first visited the women’s dormitory, a large, cavernous building where the double front doors stood wide open and two Red Cross volunteers sat at a table checking in visitors. The room was very cold, but I hoped that it warmed up at night with the doors shut.
Along both side walls, metal cots were lined up about 2 feet from each other. Some women were napping, others reading. Down the center were two rows of cots adjacent to one another. “We were going to leave the aisle empty but there were too many people needing beds,” Walsh explained.
I imagined how difficult it would be to sleep with so many people snoring, coughing and getting up to go to the bathroom in the night. These women, I realized, had no friends or family to take them in. If they had been able to afford a room rental, they wouldn’t be staying here.
Onward we went to the men’s dormitory, which was almost identical. Nearby were rows of outhouses and a freight truck with its tailgate down, revealing a row of whirring washers and dryers inside the container. Beyond the truck was a dog park, and beyond that a large building where the pets were sheltered under the direction of volunteers who had taken on responsibility for animal welfare.
Inside the cages stacked in rows were hundreds of animals, the majority of them dogs.
“I want to work, but I lost all my tools” — Red Cross shelter occupant.
As we headed to the dining room, a man who appeared agitated approached Walsh and asked him about financial assistance. In his large hand with calloused knuckles he clutched a wad of white, yellow and pink papers. “I got all the paperwork. I need to talk to somebody about financial assistance,” he stated.
Walsh gave him the name of the person in charge and said he would assist if he couldn’t find her. “I want to work,” said the man, the anxious tone of his voice turning into a plea. “I want to work, but I lost all my tools.”
This man had more immediate needs than a discussion about the 1,600-page report released by the White House on one of the year’s slowest news days — the day after Thanksgiving. Yet, the National Climate Assessment report explains, at least in part, how a California wildfire came to destroy this man’s belongings and livelihood.
The report represented the cumulative findings of top scientists in 13 federal agencies and predicted devastating effects of global warming over the next two decades. It forecasts widespread and uncontrollable fires in California, crop failures in the Midwest, the loss of land in the East from rising sea levels, extensive infrastructure damage and heat-related deaths.
The man turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Inside the dining hall were about 20 people sitting at the picnic tables, some alone and staring into the distance, some in pairs talking.
Dinner would be served in an hour and the hall would likely fill. Walsh told me that I could talk to whomever was willing, so I scanned the room and decided on a small group that included a couple holding a bag of soda and chips and a woman looking at her iPad.
I addressed the trio by introducing myself and asking them to share their experiences and opinions.
The man shook his head and replied, “Don’t get me started because I won’t shut up.”
It was fine with me, I said, if he didn’t shut up. He began a litany of complaints about his month in the shelters, about what he perceived as a lack of respect and about rumors that there were supplies packed into a semi-truck for evacuees that had been sent to Chico but never delivered to Camp Fire victims.
The man told me this was the third time he had lost a home to fire. I asked what they thought was the reason for such ferocious fires.
“PG&E,” the man said. “They knew something was wrong with their electrical system.”
“They haven’t cut the trees like they ought to,” said one of his friends.
When I asked if any of them thought that one culprit might be global warming, they all shook their heads no. Each made a few more statements about their personal losses and then, with little fanfare, stood and walked away.
Before going further, I should state unequivocally that I’m convinced by scientists who say that climate change is induced by human activity and is the greatest current threat to our existence. Finding support for that belief is easy. Every major scientific organization in the world (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and 97 percent of climate scientists maintain there is human-caused global warming and the consequences will be dire if we fail to reduce the emissions that cause it.
“Maybe there is climate change” — Julie Pearson.
The woman with the iPad wanted to continue the conversation. Julie Pearson was born and raised in Paradise and has never lived anywhere else. Over the years there had been a few evacuation warnings and she had always packed a bag and prepared to leave. But the threat never amounted to more than “smoke and ashes” from distant fires, and escape was never necessary, she said.
This time it had been very different. Pearson tried to evacuate immediately but ended up being trapped for hours in a Paradise parking lot surrounded by fire. She showed me a phone video of a house adjacent to the parking lot that caught fire and was destroyed in a matter of minutes. Pearson and the people with her in the lot were terrified that they were going to die.
“I don’t think climate change has anything to do with it,” she said. “One of the main problems is that everyone had propane tanks. They were exploding all over the place.”
She also believes that many of the trees in Paradise should have been removed. “A lot of people blame Trump,” she said. “They say he didn’t want to put up the money for cutting trees. There were a lot of dead trees up there.”
I asked why she was certain that global warming wasn’t a factor. With her crystal blue eyes, Pearson stared at me with a weary expression, then turned her gaze to the table for a moment. “Maybe it did,” she said, without looking up. “Maybe there is climate change. The last few winters there certainly has been a lot less rain.”
I asked if she thought the government was responsible for trying to do something about it. “Like what?” she asked, turning to look at me again.
“Like trying to reduce the pollution that causes global warming,” I replied.
“But there’s no pollution in Paradise!” Pearson said.
For a moment I considered explaining the global nature of this issue, the correlation between increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in parts per million and a long-term global warming trend. But why? What would be the purpose?
To try to convince her that she had been wrong about climate change? And therefore she was somehow culpable, or at least part of a population that was culpable? No. That would be cruel. Walsh was right – this wasn’t the time to ask these questions.
I mumbled something about pollution being a complicated issue, thanked her and stood to leave.
So here we are in the United States with President Trump, who has called the concept of global warming a Chinese hoax and stated that he did not believe the National Climate Assessment study released by his own federal agencies.
Here we are in the North State with our District 1 congressman, LaMalfa, who has stated that he “didn’t buy” the concept of human-made climate change. Really? The 3 percent of scientists who don’t believe in human-caused climate change are the good ones?
I don’t blame people who trust their leaders. I don’t blame those who don’t understand the science of global warming. I do blame leaders who are either so ignorant or so unscrupulously swayed by corporate donors that they champion positions that are not only contrary to science but also dangerous to us all.
Darkness had descended by the time I stepped outside. Walking toward the cafeteria in silence were dozens of people, some in ill-fitting clothing, all taking slow steps that conveyed exhaustion. The dreary mood was punctured momentarily by a distant scream followed by loud laughter from children.
At the gate I turned back to watch more people fanning out of the dorms and heading toward dinner. A phrase I hadn’t thought of in decades came to mind, something my grandmother often said: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Denise Minor is a Chico State Spanish linguistics professor who previously worked as a San Francisco-based journalist.