OPINION: California is burning. It didn’t have to be like this.

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Orange skies for weeks on end. Ash falling from the sky. Blazes decimating wildlife and towns. Charred cars. Homes burned to the ground. It all sounds incredibly apocalyptic, yet it’s been reality for me and millions of others across the West Coast for the past few weeks.

Since late August, there’s been an ever-constant cloud of smoke blanketing the sky, meaning that my home state of California — often called “the Sunshine State” — has scarcely seen any sunshine in the past month. The Air Quality Index rating in my area has been in the unhealthy range for so many days that I’ve lost count. My family and I usually enjoy going on daily walks around the neighborhood, but in the past few weeks, I’ve barely ventured out.

I’ve lived in California my entire life, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Wildfires weren’t even really on my radar until 2017, when I was a junior in high school. Back in 2017, 9,000 wildfires raged across California, and for a few days that fall, my tennis team was unable to practice due to unhealthy air quality. The same thing happened the next year, in 2018, when our matches were canceled due to another batch of wildfires.

At the time, 2018 was the worst fire season that California had ever seen. But that’s nothing compared to what we’re seeing today. And what’s ironic is that before 2018, 2017 was California’s worst fire season.

In 2018, 1.8 million acres burned across California. To date, that number stands at more than 3 million acres for 2020, and we’re barely into September and October — two months that have historically seen the most devastating wildfires in the state.

Six of California’s 20 largest fires in history occurred this year. Firefighters remark that they’re battling wildfires on scales they’ve never seen before. Today’s wildfires are shattering records — the kind no one wants to break.

We should have seen this coming.

We’ve pushed away climate change as a problem for future generations for far too long. Sorry to break it to you, but climate change is here. We’ve made our world so uninhabitable that we have to remain indoors and keep our windows shut so we won’t be poisoned by the smoke in the skies. Everything is coming to a boil, and it’s all happening faster than we ever would have thought.

As California Gov. Gavin Newsom told NBC Nightly News, “California, the West Coast of the United States — that includes Washington and obviously Oregon — are experiencing what people predicted would occur in 2040, 2050, but we’re experiencing it today.”

A 2016 study found that human-caused climate change accounted for more than half of documented increases in aridity in the western U.S. since the 1970s, as well as the doubling of cumulative forest fire area since 1984. According to climate scientists, the use of fossil fuels leads to greenhouse gas emissions that induce high temperatures. Then, heat waves exacerbate wildfires by drying out vegetation and keeping temperatures up. And dryer autumns are never a good sign when it comes to fires.

Compounding the effects of climate change, California has failed to manage its land properly since it does not practice enough controlled burns per year. Such controlled burns eliminate excess shrubbery that may fuel fires. While indigenous communities traditionally held controlled burns to prevent wildfires from breaking out, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reserves the sole right to manage fires and does not hold an adequate number of controlled burns to prevent fires.

Additionally, the inmate firefighter crews usually tasked with fighting wildfires have been understaffed this year due to COVID-19. As part of Newsom’s early release program during the pandemic, 8,000 prisoners were released early so that they would not be exposed to the virus in high-density locations like prisons, where it is easy for coronavirus to spread.

California’s smoky skies should be a wakeup call for us to take action before it’s too late. We shouldn’t depend on incarcerated people to fight our fires; it’s highly unethical. We can also learn a lot from the indigenous people who called California home long before the Europeans came, about how they valued their land and preserved precious ecosystems.

We need to significantly alter our ways of life by conserving energy when possible and rethinking transportation. Furthermore, fossil fuels just won’t cut it anymore. We must invest in solar and other forms of sustainable energy, while re-engineering systems to use renewable energy.

The climate crisis is not just isolated to California — we’re seeing the same images in Washington and Oregon as well. What’s happening on the West Coast is only a sign of what’s to come. This is our reckoning.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 is from San Jose, California. She has fond memories of visiting Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and is devastated by the destruction of millions of acres of land across the West Coast due to the wildfires of the past few years.

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