Climate Grief Is Burning Across the American West
Written by Matt Simon | Published: December 14, 2020
Originally published by WIRED on September 14, 2020
Climate change is making wildfires bigger, fiercer, and deadlier, fueling a new kind of despair on the West Coast—and beyond.
Grief has settled over the western U.S., along with the thick haze of smoke pouring from dozens of massive wildfires up and down California, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. It’s grief over the thousands of structures and at least 33 lives lost so far; grief over another villain conspiring with COVID-19 to lock people indoors; grief that the orange-hued dystopia of Blade Runner is now a reality in smoky San Francisco; grief over losing any sense of normalcy, or indeed a clear future.
Enveloping all of those emotions—packaging them into an overwhelming feeling of doom—is climate grief, as psychologists call it, the dread that humans have thoroughly corrupted the planet, and that the planet is now exacting its revenge. Wildfires were around before human-made climate change, but by pulling a variety of strings, it’s made them bigger, fiercer, and ultimately deadlier, creating what fire historian Steve Pyne has dubbed the Pyrocene, an Age of Flames. By burning fossil fuels, we’ve primed the landscape to burn explosively, and by pushing human communities deeper and deeper into what was once wilderness, we’re provided plenty of opportunities for ignition—and plenty of opportunities for grief as these forces catastrophically combine.
“So much is out of our control,” says Adrienne Heinz, a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who studies the effects of disasters like wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We lose our sense of personal agency over how we will live—the decisions are made for us.”
“It shifts from grief over what’s happening with our climate—can we feel safe in our own communities?—to despair, the differentiator being that you don’t feel like tomorrow is going to be any better than today,” Heinz adds. “That’s where it gets really dark.”
For the people of Northern California, an exhausting parade of massive wildfires have marched across the landscape over the past several autumns, with many people having to evacuate several years in a row. Last October, the Kincade Fire burned 120 square miles. The November before, the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people. And in October 2017, the Tubbs Fire obliterated 5,600 structures and killed 22.
“The catchphrase—kind of with a bitterness around here—is, ‘This is the new normal,’ ” says Barbara Young, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Healdsburg, north of San Francisco, who had to evacuate last month. “And so, with that, I think it’s implied that this isn’t going away—our climate is changing. These aren’t flukes, this is the trend. And I think everyone is very clear that this is not a one-off. This is every year now.”
Year after year of such stress is taking a toll on Americans in the West, Young says. Even if someone isn’t forced to evacuate, the mere whiff of wildfire smoke can be an emotional trigger for survivors of previous blazes. “It’s a tremendous amount of fatigue,” she says. “Mental fatigue, physical fatigue, emotional fatigue. And that’s long-term.”
California’s wildfires are also chewing through iconic destinations, like Big Basin State Park, bringing a sort of anthropomorphized grief as people mourn for a place they’ve bonded with. “Places just have a lot of emotional significance for us,” says psychologist Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster, coauthor of an extensive report on climate change and mental health. “And when they’re gone, in some cases people have even talked about it being like losing a family member—for example, a favorite tree that you’ve known for a long time is destroyed.”
To be sure, wildfires are a perfectly natural and indeed beneficial component of the Western landscape, periodically clearing out an environment and resetting it for new plant growth, which feeds herbivores, which ultimately feed carnivores. But these recent fires in the American West are far from perfectly normal. Sparked by a freak thunderstorm system and fueled by record heat and brutal winds, California’s fires over the past month have grown into conflagrations of astounding size and intensity. About halfway between the Bay Area and the Oregon border, the August Complex—a “complex” is a grouping of blazes—has ballooned into California’s biggest wildfire on record, at 877,000 acres, or 1,370 square miles. That nearly doubles the previous record set just two years ago by the Mendocino Complex, which burned 459,000 acres. Two other complexes currently burning, the SCU Lightning Complex and LNU Lightning Complex, are now the state’s third- and fourth-biggest fires ever, respectively. Across the state, over 3.2 million acres have burned.
“The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier,” said California governor Gavin Newsom in his Democratic National Convention speech on August 20, recorded a mile from one of hundreds of wildfires burning in the state. “Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”
In Oregon, a plague of wildfires has blackened a million acres and forced tens of thousands to evacuate. Ten people are dead, and dozens more are missing. “We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Oregon governor Kate Brown said last week. In Washington, wildfires have burned 600,000 acres. Still more fires across Colorado have burned hundreds of thousands of acres—crews got a better handle on these last week when extreme heat suddenly gave way to snow.
Climate change is but one of several co-conspirators in the West’s fiery reckoning. Part of the problem is that the region has long embraced a policy of squelching fires quickly, so underbrush builds up as fuel year after year. Part of that problem is that fire crews have ever more people to protect, as the West’s population expands and we build farther into forests. More people also means more opportunities for accidentally sparking fires. Plus, bigger populations make it harder for fire crews to do controlled burns—small, manageable blazes set in the spring when the landscape is hydrated, so there’s less fuel load to burn in the dryness of summer and fall. But to burn safely, crews have to ensure there aren’t people downwind, especially with the continued spread of COVID-19, a disease that attacks the lungs.
The patterns of how fires burn in a given area, known as wildfire regimes, are changing as human populations expand and the climate grows hotter and drier. “The populations within these wildfire regimes are increasing so rapidly that forest management becomes almost impossible,” says climate scientist Zachary Zobel, who studies wildfires at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “Controlled burns get very challenging when there are population centers around where you’re trying to cleanse the forest, because one misstep and it burns down the entire neighborhood. I mean, that’s a little bit bleak—that’s the truth.” Plus, things have been so generally hot and dry that crews have less of a window during the spring to even think about doing burns.
Overarching all of these problems is climate change. Swaths of the western U.S. literally being on fire may seem like an obvious symptom of a world figuratively being on fire, but there are some surprising dynamics at play. Yes, the West has been extremely dry in recent years, which desiccates mountains of vegetation into mountains of tinder. And yes, on a hotter planet, the atmosphere sucks what little moisture is left out of those plants more greedily. The West has gotten so dry and hot, in fact, that areas usually too wet to burn, like northwest Oregon, are right now consumed by flames. But the collision of climate change and the West’s wildfires is also a matter of timing, and oddly enough, it’s about the abundance of water during a certain time of year.
Having so many intense fires arrive in the summer is odd, actually. California’s biggest blazes tend to break out in the autumn, when seasonal winds tear in from the northeast. In decades past, these winds weren’t so dangerous, because by the time they arrived, California at least had experienced a little rain, which greened up the vegetation. But climate change is pushing those rains later and later in the year, giving the parched landscape more time to combust. And it isn’t done pushing yet. “Just the raw length of the wildfire season, what we’re expecting over the next couple decades is for that to very much be extending later into the year,” says Zobel. And because of climate change, the landscape is drier for longer and wildfires burn more intensely.
But here’s a great irony of climate change: Parts of California are getting very heavy rains during the winter, because the warmer air on a warmer planet holds more moisture. Come spring, the hydrated landscape explodes with new vegetation, which then shrivels during ever hotter summers. In other words, the wet winters are leaving the landscape with fuel to burn in the autumn when speedy seasonal winds arrive. Instead of burning naturally and less intensely every so often, parts of the western U.S. are now in a regular cycle of blooming, getting obliterated by massive wildfires, and blooming once more.
“If we were just dry all the time, at some point, we would run out of things to burn, essentially,” says Zobel. “The inverse of that is actually probably worse.”
What makes the resulting grief so painful for the people who live in the West are the dueling certainties and uncertainties of wildfires: Residents know how climate change has exacerbated these fires, and know that the Western landscape will grow more dangerous from now on, but they don’t know where the next Camp Fire or Tubbs Fire will break out, or when whole towns and dozens of lives may be lost in a matter of hours. We can characterize this hellish new reality, but we can’t predict the firestorms. The certainty of climate grief interfaces with the uncertainty of climate anxieties.
“I think that’s one of the things that characterizes this response to climate change,” says Clayton of the College of Wooster. “For those of us who are absolutely sure that it’s happening, that it’s going to be bad, you still don’t know exactly what impacts might be felt in a particular area and when they’ll happen. And I think with wildfire, that’s just especially true. It can be so random. Such small things can have an impact on where it starts and how much it spreads.”
As with climate-fueled disasters in general, the West’s wildfire crisis is hitting the least fortunate the hardest. Researchers from several California universities reported last month on how they used smartphone location data to show that poor Americans have had to travel more than the working-from-home wealthy during the pandemic, likely to get to their essential jobs, putting them more at risk of contracting COVID-19. Similarly, while many of the rich are able to huddle safely at home behind double-paned windows with air purifiers humming, essential workers labor outdoors in the West’s choking wildfire smoke, braving a virus that attacks the lungs.
“We see pictures of farm workers who are working in really horrible air quality that’s bad for their health,” says Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive, a nonprofit that focuses on the intersection of climate change and inequity. Indoors, too, the poor are at greater risk: To keep its equipment from sparking fires when winds kick up, the California utility PG&E has been preemptively cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people. And while power cuts affect everybody in a region, the wealthy are more likely to have resources like solar panels, or to be able to recover from losses. “We could go down the list of people who are likely to lose their power, and with it all the food in their freezer, when replacing the food in their freezer is an economic hardship,” says Sawin.
The rich can also afford to stay one step ahead of climate change, moving away from rising seas and fire-prone landscapes. “We’re starting to hear around the country and around the world, the term climate gentrification,” says Sawin, “which is the idea that the places that are safest will soon become unaffordable except to the elite. So whether that’s high ground in a place that’s prone to flooding or fire-safe areas in the West, I think it’s the same underlying dynamic.” This is particularly acute in California, as low-income residents flee expensive coastal cities and settle in less expensive towns near the mountains. They’ve been displaced not by disaster, but toward disaster.
Thus inequities, wildfires, and climate change collide. Each massive problem on its own is difficult for the human mind to parse, much less all three together. “I am doing a lot of work with people on really increasing psychological self-care, spiritual self-care, physical self-care, and to help that fatigue,” says Young, the therapist in Healdsburg. “And I do think that is connected with climate grief. Finally, maybe we are forced to see how interconnected everything is.”