Jane Braxton Little

Inferno: Climate change's fiery apocalypse

Jane Braxton Little: A Global Four-Alarm Blaze

Just over a year ago, my old friend Jane Braxton Little experienced climate change up close and personal. Greenville, California, the Gold Rush-era town she’d lived in since the 1970s (when I used to visit her there) was burned down in the raging Dixie Fire. She wrote about it vividly at TomDispatch. For a time, she became, as she put it, a “climate refugee,” just as so many of the survivors of Hurricane Ian did in Florida this fall.

Honestly, it isn’t really up for debate anymore (unless you’re in the Trumpublican Party), is it? This overheating planet of ours is growing ever more perilous right before our eyes, whether you’re talking about increasingly severe megadroughts, floods, fires, storms, or melting glaciers and ice sheets. And it’s only going to get worse as, despite everything we now know, humanity continues to put record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As it happens, the latest war on this planet, the still expanding one in Ukraine, is only making matters worse, while pouring record profits into the coffers of the giant fossil-fuel companies whose CEOs are living as if there were no tomorrow.

Of course, there will indeed be a tomorrow and another after that, even if they prove ever more perilous. When it comes to fire, as Little explains today, in its own fashion, this planet is already ablaze. As a United Nations report put it, we’re experiencing “a global wildfire crisis… turning landscapes into tinderboxes.” Already reporting on climate change when the Dixie Fire hit her community, Little saw all this in a horrifying way. Now, take a step back with her and she’ll fill you in on the inferno this planet threatens to become. Tom

Inferno: Climate Disaster Is Turning the Planet into a Tinderbox

Mike Savala’s boots scuffed the edge of a singed patch of forest littered with skinny fingers of burnt ponderosa pine needles. Nearby, an oak seedling sizzled as a yellow-shirted firefighter hit it with a stream of water. Spurts of smoke rose from blackened ground the size of a hockey rink. A 100-foot Ponderosa pine towered overhead.

“Third response today,” said Savala, shaking his head.

This hillside in my own backyard in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains hadn’t seen lightning for months and yet it had still burst into flames. All summer long, it had baked in heat that extended into an unseasonably hot autumn. Now, in late October, it was charred by a fire of mysterious origin. A spark from a wandering hiker? An errant ember from a burn pile? Spontaneous combustion?

Savala, a fire-crew boss for the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians, scanned the sky. Cloudless. There had only been three inches of precipitation since July 1st — 15% of normal. And no wonder, since California is in the throes of its fourth dry year. More than 95% of the state is now classified as under severe or extreme drought.

Although small and easily contained, this tiny fire in rural northeastern California was another wake-up call, up close and personal, about an ominous trend. A warming planet and changing land use are fueling a dramatic surge in forest fires worldwide. Terrifying projections forecast a 57% increase in extreme fires globally by century’s end. The indisputable cause: climate change.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” a team of 50 researchers from six continents reported in “Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” published this year by the United Nations Environment Program. That document describes what can only be viewed as a future flaming version of planetary collapse that could push humanity perilously close to a precipice of no return.

Like dozens of previous reports from the U.N. and other international organizations, it describes a situation that, while dire, isn’t yet hopeless. Despite those ever stronger, hotter, drier winds that will fan the flames, governments could slow climate change by improving their forest management techniques, planning and preparing far better, and communicating more effectively. To reduce the likelihood of future mega-fires means working with forests where fire is an element as essential to ecosystems as sunshine or rain. It also means working with forest communities, where local knowledge accumulated over generations is too often shunned. And of course, it means honestly confronting our reluctance to ween ourselves from the fossil fuels that power our factories, cars, and those absurdly unnecessary leaf blowers that are backing us toward the cliff.

A Fiery Feedback Loop

If my small backyard fire was a personal wake-up call, the 2021 Dixie fire was a four-alarm blaze. On its rampage from the Feather River Canyon through Lassen Volcanic National Park and beyond, it destroyed my adopted town of Greenville, 160 miles northeast of San Francisco. In fact, it torched close to a million acres. Nearly half of them burned so intensely that the once-majestic, now blackened pine and fir forests there may never again support the biologically diverse ecosystems that drew me here so long ago.

The single-largest fire in California’s history, Dixie was part of a record-breaking fire year globally. Around the world, fires burned nearly 23 million acres, an area almost the size of Portugal. Dixie contributed to the worldwide loss to fire of more than a third of the tree cover that disappeared in those 12 months, according to a report from the World Resources Institute. And this is only a preview of what’s to come. Scientists believe that there may be a 30% increase in extreme fires globally by 2050.

Such an acceleration of forest fires will, it seems, spare few parts of the world. Fires, burning longer and hotter, are already flaring in unexpected places, shattering assumptions about what’s safe, let alone normal. Even the Arctic, that remote expanse of sea ice, treeless permafrost, and minus 40-degree Celsius temperatures, home to polar bears, lemmings, and snowy owls, is now beginning to burn. After July 2019, the hottest month on record so far, fires erupted across the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. As temperatures soared to as much as six degrees Celsius above normal, flames spurted across an expanse of tundra larger than England.

Arctic fires are particularly worrisome because of the vast amounts of carbon locked beneath that frozen soil. Much of it, after all, is peatlands, largely formed at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. Although it covers just 3% of the Earth’s surface, peat sequesters 42% of the carbon stored in all other types of vegetation, including the world’s forests. Global warming is now drying out that peat, making it ever more susceptible to fire. As it burns, of course, it releases that carbon.

Nor is such a bio-feedback loop limited to the Arctic. As the world becomes hotter and drier, the carbon we emit from our reliance on fossil fuels is drying out forests everywhere, making them ever more prone to burn, while extending burning seasons globally. Firefighters in California used to don fire-resistant Nomex shirts in May or June, knowing they could shed them by mid-October. Now, there’s barely a pause before things heat up again and those shirts go right back on.

As wildfires are transformed into year-round challenges, the carbon they release only further contributes to emissions from other sources, making it that much more difficult to halt rising temperatures. Think of it as a mutually exacerbating feedback loop: wildfires are worsened by climate change, which, in turn, is intensified by the ever-fiercer wildfires.

Management for Better — or Worse

Forests around the world evolved with fire, hosting species that came to depend on its cleansing power for renewal and the flushes of nutrients it releases. Indigenous people understood this and learned to live with fire. Over the last century, however, many forests have been fundamentally altered by a misunderstanding of its essential role in forest resilience. While climate change is indeed the primary driver of the global increase in wildfires, forest management has played its own substantive and mostly negative role in that increase by overemphasizing the importance of fire suppression.

Scientists and policymakers are urging fire-fighting agencies to rethink their use of financial and human resources. Instead of focusing primarily on how many crews can be mustered for fire suppression, the emphasis should shift to planning and prevention. Most countries devote less than 0.2% of their wildfire expenditures to such planning, according to U.N. researchers. In the United States, just 40 cents of every dollar spent on managing wildfires goes toward reducing fire risk or helping forest communities like mine recover in ways that could make them more resilient.

“There isn’t the right attention to fire from governments,” says Glynis Humphrey, a fire expert at the University of Cape Town and one of those U.N. researchers.

Whether it’s the collapse of forest ecosystems before our eyes or the trauma of entire towns like Greenville burning up in raging infernos, forest managers are slowly starting to respond to the global crisis — with sadly mixed results.

A wave of deadly fires in Portugal in 2017 that killed 117 people and ravaged 1.3 million acres evoked fierce popular condemnation of the government’s response, prompting that country to adopt an aggressive 20-year plan to transform its fire management. It aims to use fire as a tool, while increasing understanding of its positive role in such a heavily forested country. Prime Minister Antonio Costa has restricted funding aimed at combatting fires to less than 10% of the total spent, while rural communities are to become more involved in protecting their homes and businesses. However, his new plan was barely launched last summer when temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and 40-mile-per-hour winds contributed to yet another series of out-of-control wildfires, forcing evacuations of whole communities and a nationwide state of emergency.

Throughout the western United States, a century of public policy committed to suppressing all wildfires has left our forests unnaturally crammed with small-diameter trees and brush. Scientists documented as much as a seven-fold increase in tree density in the Sierra mountains between 1911 and 2011. While large old-growth trees have evolved to live with fires, those small trees and shrubs form an unnatural bed of fuel for future infernos. As a result, blazes in the West increased by seven large fires a year from the mid-1980s through 2011, according to a study by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of California, Berkeley.

What needs to be done is clear, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at Berkeley. “Active stewardship is the only way we’ll ever get out of this.”

In California, state and federal officials have committed to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires by returning fire to the forest ecosystems that evolved with it. They’ve set a goal of igniting planned fires to burn away such brush and seedlings on one million acres annually. In September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation allocating $1.5 billion to wildfire mitigation projects, the largest such investment in state history. Last January, the federal government also announced a $600 million program to support California’s wildfire recovery efforts. As well-intentioned as such programs may be, however, they have so far fallen well short of their objective. Fire managers hope that, in 2022, they will have set prescribed burns on 200,000 acres, only 20% of the goal. Add in logging to thin overcrowded stands of trees and they may reach 300,000 acres.

Amid the frightening statistics on rising temperatures and scorched acres, an 8,800-acre area in California demonstrates the potential for active management to reduce the dangers of destructive wildfires. In 2019, Forest Service crews set intentional fires on the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada near Caples Lake. Last summer, when the 222,000-acre Caldor fire roared through there en route to South Lake Tahoe, it left a finger of green where prescribed fires had reduced the forest’s fuels. While that was only a small island of resilience, consider it an enormous example of possibility.

The Promise of Technology

Some of the government agencies most criticized for their management of wildfires are now turning to technology to help detect them before they turn into infernos. In this, they are not alone globally. Take Australia, where fires in the catastrophic 2019-2020 summer season, the worst in that country’s recorded history, killed 34 people directly and another 445 through smoke inhalation. Often sparked by lightning at a time of warmer-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation, they destroyed about 6,000 buildings and killed an estimated 1.5 billion animals. In response, last year, Australia launched a satellite system connected to ground-based cameras and aerial drones meant to spot any fire within one minute of ignition.

Sonoma County, California, has similarly been testing fire-detecting artificial intelligence technology for two years now. In 2017, that area just north of San Francisco was devastated by the deadly 37,000-acre Tubbs fire. Three other fires followed in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, county officials linked artificial intelligence software to an already existing system of tower-mounted cameras. Called ALERTWildfire, it snaps photographs every 10 seconds, exposing smoke and flames. The AI sifts through the camera images in a fashion designed to increase the speed of detecting such blazes and so getting firefighters to them faster.

After the first full season, the results, however, were anything but overwhelming: AI detections beat humans in spotting fires only once out of every 10 times. Now, managers are directing their AI-adapted cameras to look for fires where humans are unlikely to spot them — as Sam Wallis, a community alert and warning manager, put it: the fires “way out in the middle of nowhere, the ones that really scare us.” He’s also optimistic about AI’s potential for detecting nighttime fires, which can smolder in the forest duff for significant periods before bursting into uncontrollable flames. Overall, Wallis said, “the AI is not a silver bullet, but it is a bullet.”

Last year, Pacific Gas and Electric also began adding AI software similar to the kind Australia is testing to its network of cameras. It’s a better-late-than-never effort to reduce the number of deadly wildfires sparked all too notoriously by its own faulty equipment. The company has, after all, been implicated in at least five major California wildfires including the Dixie one.

Then there are the “dragon eggs.” The Forest Service is dropping those ping-pong-sized balls from remote-controlled aircraft to start controlled burns designed to return fire to its natural role of keeping forest fuels more balanced. The chemicals in the spheres ignite when they hit the ground. During the Dixie fire, drones dropped such incendiary balls on a mountainside ahead of the advancing flames to start what’s known as a backfire and did indeed create a fire-unfriendly zone in its wake.

Such management efforts may prove effective both in returning forest stands to a state of fire resilience and in curbing runaway blazes. They don’t, however, relieve officials of what many consider their unconscionable failure to enact the most basic laws to curb the greenhouse gases that are driving such climate-change-induced disasters. Apocalyptic scenes — cities blanketed in smoke, vast landscapes left lifeless — have prompted proposals before the U.N. to include “ecocide” as the 5th international crime, alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.

Sadly, humanity may already have passed the point of simply managing ourselves out of the fiery apocalypse scientists predict we’re heading for. Global mean surface temperatures are already up 1.09 degrees Celsius and rising. The precipice looms.

Yes, technology can help and, if the feet of agencies are held to the proverbial flames they’re committed to managing more effectively, the oncoming inferno may yet be slowed, if not halted altogether. But if we don’t take responsibility for what’s happening, all our talk, all that bureaucratic lingo about creating a low-carbon economy and hitting net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 may be little more than what environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called the “blah blah blah.”

Still, hope is empowering and activity galvanizing. While it’s taken far too many destroyed towns to get there, California, at least, is beginning to grasp what’s needed to live with fire. Both cultural and monetary support is now strong — and growing — for prescribed burns and fuel-treatment projects. And so, locally, we take chainsaws to the smaller trees overcrowding our woods, using what we remove to heat our homes. We prune the branches from the large fire-resilient trees, chopping them to fit our stoves. We rake the small debris and forest litter into burn piles, wishing we had a way to utilize those forest products, too, instead of adding to the very emissions we’re trying to reduce. And we keep on igniting small, safe burns to return resilience to these lands that once enjoyed the benefits of fire. On such a planet in such a time, the question remains: Will any of it be enough to live with the fire next time?

Days after our backyard blaze flared up, it snowed: eight inches of reassurance that this fire, at least, would not smolder and restart. But by the end of November, the Sierra had no additional rain and state officials were at the edge of declaring a fourth year of drought. Somewhere in our future, the inferno still lurks.

Billions of people at risk as climate change surges into 'uncharted territory'

Consider this perhaps the strangest thing of all in our all-too-strange world: the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced essentially never leads the news. Yes, the immediate crises of our world, most recently Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, are 24/7 headlines for weeks at a time. And any set of events that sends millions of us into external or internal exile, as has become all too common on this planet of ours, should indeed be a focus of attention. But to put all of this in context, it’s estimated that within three decades up to a mind-boggling 1.2 billion human beings could be driven from their homes thanks to the burgeoning climate emergency.

Of course, climate change, as TomDispatch regular Jane Braxton Little, who still lives in the fire-devastated northern Californian town of Greenville, reminds us today, is already hard at work wrecking lives across our world. When it hits as fire or flood, as a dramatic weather disaster of some sort, the news often loves to show us the calamity at hand (and the all-too-photogenic weeping survivors). But the cause of it all, climate change itself? No such luck. The ongoing, never-ending, ever-worsening calamity that could someday simply destroy human life as we’ve known it gets remarkably little attention here (unless coal merchant Joe Manchin votes against its solution in some fashion).

Only recently the authoritative U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest devastating report, produced by 1,000 scientists, on what we’re doing to ourselves. In the midst of the Ukrainian events, it got hardly a moment’s notice. Yet its version of the news to come should have been screaming headlines, given that, if the effects of the overheating of this planet aren’t mitigated soon, by 2050, at least 183 million more people could be going hungry and that’s just to start down a long list of possible nightmares to come. At least climate change makes headlines here at TomDispatch. Today, for instance, you can learn from Little, who has experienced its effects in an up-close-and-personal way, just how we’re going to be “whiplashed” by the weather that our eternally fossil-fuel-burning societies (and the big energy companies that have made their fortunes off it) continue to produce.


Greenville, CA — Snow began falling on December 24th, big fluffy flakes that made lace on mittens before melting. Within hours it had coated the ashes, the brick chimneys that the flames had left behind, and the jagged remains of roofs strewn across my burned-out town. White mounds soon softened the look of charred cars that are everywhere, while even the scorched trees that stretch to the hilltops were coated in a forgiving winter wonder.

Any moisture would have been welcome. Over the seven months since the Dixie fire destroyed Greenville and several other rural communities in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains, the drought that led to the flaming disaster had only deepened. October brought brief, drenching rains, but November and December were dry again. Soil that should have been moist was as desiccated as the air, while the humidity hovered just above single digits. We watched bulldozers move the dilapidated walls — what had not long ago been homes — into gigantic dump trucks in a haze of grime. Even the trees that survived had a withered look. Now, it was snowing — for Christmas! We greeted it with hearts as wide as the open mouths of kids savoring falling flakes.

Greenville, my adopted town of 46 years, had been devastated by a climate-change disaster. Sparked by the negligence

✎ EditSign of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the Dixie fire scorched nearly one million acres, the distance, if you care to measure, from Philadelphia to New York City. On August 4th, a pyrocumulus cloud collapsed on the ridge above the tarnished old Gold Rush community where I worked, erupting into red-hot embers that fell over a several square-mile area. Trees were transformed into towering torches. Flames roared down the nearby mountain, racing through overcrowded forests left bone dry (after a century of ill-advised fire suppression) by a third year of drought. It took less than 45 minutes for that inferno to raze the historic 160-year-old downtown, including my journalism office on the second floor of the oldest building around. About 800 homes went up in flames. Over the next four months, we gathered in grief in twos and threes in the post offices and shops of neighboring towns, soothing one another.

Now, it was Christmas and snowing! We relaxed and rejoiced amid the ruins.

Little did we know that, driven by our overheated planet, we were about to be whiplashed from drought to deluge. Hotter days and hotter nights have corkscrewed our weather patterns into spiraling extremes, leaving entire regions around the world jerked from the hottest temperatures they’ve known to the coldest, from devastating fires to disastrous floods. This is uncharted territory and, scientists say, an all-too-grim preview of the future we’re creating for ourselves.

By the fourth day of non-stop snow our euphoria had waned. Electricity was flickering on and off. The Internet was mostly off. We shoveled our steps and then the paths to our cars, only to find them covered all over again. Driveways were challenging and roads treacherous (if open at all). Snow was piling up across the Sierra Nevada, the gigantic tilted block of granite that lies along the state line with Nevada.

At Lake Tahoe, 75 miles to the south, 18 feet of snow was dumped on luxury second homes, collapsing decks, and taxing municipal snow-removal crews gone soft after years of mild winters. Highway 80, the main route over the mountains, was closed for three days by storms that made December the third snowiest month on record and the snowiest December ever. Those storms catapulted the state’s precipitation to 258% of its average for that point in the year. California water officials were giddy with expectation, predicting that our three-year-old drought would be broken.

Then, of course, it ended. Precipitation of any kind simply stopped. January clocked in as the driest ever for some parts of the state, as well as most of Nevada, Utah, and western Colorado. Last month was the driest February in 128 years, according to a multi-agency partnership monitoring drought. And here’s the truth of it: if we keep letting greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, we better get used to this sort of seesaw experience. Scientists say that, by century’s end, such abrupt transitions between wet and dry will increase by another 25% in northern California and possibly double that in southern California.

Weather Whiplash

While California may be a poster child for extreme weather events, they are occurring almost everywhere. Such wild swings from tinder-dry to inundation are known as climate or weather whiplash. What causes them is a matter of scientific speculation and the subject of much cutting-edge research, says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. Some scientists cite a connection between the polar vortex, a wall of wind that circles the Arctic, and jet streams, the bands of strong winds that generally blow from west to east. As the Arctic warms — at as much as triple the average global rate — it seems to be destabilizing those jet streams and so, according to a study published in Environmental Research, provoking abnormal and extreme weather across the planet.

Swain thinks we should imagine it as a colossal tug of war involving complex atmospheric dynamics over the Pacific Ocean. Yes, he says, the world is definitely getting warmer as greenhouse-gas concentrations rise. That, in turn, means wet times will generally be wetter and dry times drier, especially in California. He’s also found emerging evidence, as he told me, of what he calls “a relatively weird” regional effect: the loss of Arctic sea ice might actually be counteracting the drying effect of the expanding subtropical zone, keeping California from becoming more arid still in a warming world.

People in my community know local weather and the land. Ranchers, loggers, and firefighters, they understand storms and seasons, soil, water, and trees in an up close and personal way. I’ve found my place among them over these years, writing about their work and their love of the landscape we share. We here in Greenville may not know anything about what the intersection of the polar vortex and jet streams or atmospheric dynamics are doing to our world, but we certainly know when our environment is off kilter. Being jerked from the drought that provoked the Dixie fire to that historic snowfall and back again has left us with little doubt: something with the weather is seriously bonkers.

The unexpected uncertainty of weather we once took for granted is spawning anxieties that add to the trauma of living through a town-destroying fire. Instead of one disaster and done, weather whiplash threatens us with disaster after disaster. Having somehow survived fire, we’ve been thrust into a deeply uncertain future. The forests we turned to for hiking, fishing, and birdsong no longer promise solace. The natural world that welcomed and kept us in this valley ringed by mountains has become unreliable. What can we trust?

A Is for Anthropocene

When it comes to weather whiplash, Australia is exhibit A for Anthropocene, the current geological epoch dominated by the human impact on the environment. Storms have been pounding that island nation’s southeast coast since late February, earning the moniker “rain bombs” for their severity. In just two days, the town of Doon Doon in New South Wales received 42 inches of rain, roughly Washington, D.C.’s annual precipitation. Flooding has killed 22 people so far, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to declare a national emergency. This round of extreme wet weather follows the catastrophic bushfires of 2020 that killed 28 people and more than a billion animals, while scorching an area nearly the size of Connecticut in a fashion never before seen.

Worse yet, as we in California have discovered, the recovery time for communities between such climate disasters is shrinking. Simon Bradshaw, a researcher at the Australian Climate Council, summed things up simply enough: “New South Wales was hit hard by the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires and now it is in the grips of another climate-driven disaster.”

Then there’s Texas. During the last decade that state has reeled from one of the most significant droughts since the 1950s to a series of deluges that have rivaled any period of flooding Texas has ever experienced. Rainfall in 2011 was 25 inches below average, forcing mandatory water restrictions. Meteorologist Jeff Lindner called the heat in Houston that August a 10,000-year event. Over the 2011 Labor Day weekend, vegetation primed by that drought combined with 40 mile-per-hour winds to produce the Bastrop fire, the single most devastating wildfire in that state’s history. It burned more than 35,000 acres and around 1,600 homes, while the Tricounty fire incinerated over 19,000 acres and 100 homes.

Then the weather seesawed. By the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Port Aransas on August 27, 2017, the area had rocketed from drought to deluge. Rainfall for the year was nearly 30 inches above the annual average. Netherland, a city on the Gulf of Mexico, recorded more than 60 inches. The devastation Harvey wreaked affected an estimated 13 million people and included at least 107 deaths, nearly 135,000 homes damaged or destroyed (one third of the total number in four counties), and up to a million wrecked cars.

Governor Greg Abbott, a veteran climate-change denier who has threatened to sue President Biden over policies addressing the crisis, conceded that something was changing dramatically. “We need to recognize that this is going to be a new normal. A new and different normal for the entire region,” he said.

Even when such weather swings don’t create disasters, they have tangible consequences. Across the American Midwest, for instance, weather whiplash is driving a decline in municipal water quality. After excessive flooding followed a drought in 2012, researchers at the University of Kansas noticed a nitrogen spike in surface waters in the area. In dry times, the nitrogen fertilizer that farmers put in their fields doesn’t go into the plants it’s intended to enrich. A 2017 study found that the nitrogen stays in the soil, which acts like a sponge, holding it in place. “But as soon as you wet it,” Amy Burgin, one of its authors, points out, “like when you wring a sponge, the nitrogen can flood into the rivers.”

Such increasingly high nitrate levels in drinking water forced the Des Moines Water Works to construct a $4.1 million nitrate removal plant that costs $7,000 a day to operate. As weather whiplash becomes ever more the norm, scientists expect surface-water nitrate spikes to occur throughout the agricultural Midwest.

Elsewhere, the changing patterns of various kinds of wildlife are only exacerbating the problems caused by weird weather. In eastern Oregon, for instance, widespread drought followed by deep snow has caused elk to move out of the hills to feed on the haystacks that are ranchers’ paychecks. Conflicts between wildlife and humans are already common enough, but climate scientists expect them to increase as droughts, floods, and fires push animals off their normal ranges and into agricultural areas.

Who Drives the Climate Train?

As I’ve learned all too personally, climate disasters are profoundly destabilizing. They can wrench communities from their roots and turn them upside down. They are also profoundly unjust. Those with the fewest resources and least responsible for the climate crisis are going to continue to bear the brunt of its impact.

And here’s the only good news: climate change is a problem with a solution. We humans created it, which means it’s solvable. That, however, would require societal and political will of a kind we simply haven’t seen yet. And that’s the bad news. We haven’t mustered anything close to enough determination to halt the relentless increases in temperature driving the weather that’s whiplashing us ever more violently. As United Nations Secretary General António Guterres put it, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership… that reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”

Swain, the UCLA climate scientist, put it this way: “We’re on a train going faster and faster down the tracks with perfectly functional brakes. But the drivers, for whatever reasons, are choosing not to engage the brakes.”

One of the great ironies of experiencing climate-change disaster may be that we are both its victims and its drivers. We could, at least theoretically, apply the brakes of the locomotive. In our fury over the forces of destruction beyond our control — the flames that incinerate and the floods that inundate our lives — perhaps we’ll find the political will and guts to bring meaningful change, at least on a very small scale right here in my town of Greenville.

In its charred devastation, we could now choose solar power over fossil fuels. (And if so, who would blame us for feeling smug about shunning PG&E?) We could choose community gardens over imported produce. All that, however, remains a distant future for a place with a single grocery store, a gas station, and little else. But if we must spend the rest of our lives healing, we can at least invest them in empowering one another and our community in a new way. We have so little left to lose.

A tour guide to Hell on Earth, small town-style

Half a mile south of what’s left of the old Gold Rush-era town of Greenville, California, Highway 89 climbs steeply in a series of S-turns as familiar to me as my own backyard. From the top of that grade, I’ve sometimes seen bald eagles soaring over the valley that stretches to the base of Keddie Peak, the northernmost mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada range.

Today, stuck at the bottom thanks to endless road work, I try to remember what these hillsides looked like before the Dixie Fire torched them in a furious 104-day climate-change-charged rampage across nearly one million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware. They were so green then, pines, cedars, and graceful Douglas firs mixed with oaks pushing through the thick conifer foliage in a quest for light and life. Today, I see only slopes studded with charred stumps and burnt trees jackstrawed across the land like so many giant pick-up-sticks.

Dixie did far more than take out entire forests. It razed Greenville, my hometown since 1975. It reduced house after house to rubble, leaving only chimneys where children once had hung Christmas stockings, and dead century-old oaks where families, spanning four generations, had not so long ago built tree forts. The fire left our downtown with scorched, bent-over lampposts touching debris-strewn sidewalks. The historic sheriff’s office is just a series of naked half-round windows eerily showcasing devastation. Like natural disasters everywhere, this fire has upended entire communities.

Sadly, I have plenty of time to contemplate these devastating changes. I’m the first in a long line of vehicles halted by a burly man clad in neon yellow and wielding a stop sign on a six-foot pole. We motorists are all headed toward Quincy, the seat of Plumas County and its largest town. My mission is to retrieve the household mail, a task that would ordinarily have required a five-minute walk from my second-floor office to the Greenville Post Office. Now, it’s a 50-mile round trip drive that sometimes takes four hours due to the constant removal of hazardous trees. I’m idling here impatiently.

Greenville still has a zip code, but the fire gutted the concrete-block building that was our post office. The box where I once received magazines, bills, and hand-decorated cards from my grandkids lies on its back, collecting ashes. Whoever promised that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” would impede postal deliveries never anticipated the ferocity of the Dixie fire.

Few did. That blaze erupted in forests primed for a runaway inferno by a climate that’s changing before our eyes. Temperatures worldwide are up 2.04 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901 and 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the United States since 1970. This year is California’s driest in a century. Only 11.87 inches of rain or snow fell, less than half what experts deem average. Combine that with a century of forest management that suppressed natural fires and promoted the logging of large, more fire-resistant trees and these forests needed only a spark to erupt into a barrage of flames that swept from the Feather River Canyon to north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the equivalent of traveling from Philadelphia to New York City.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) almost certainly provided that spark, as company officials told the California Public Utilities Commission. Earlier, they had accepted responsibility for the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the sadly named town of Paradise, and three other blazes. Those fires are the outsized products of corporate greed and a gross failure to maintain the company’s electrical infrastructure.

PG&E’s negligence comes at a time when a dramatically changing climate is wreaking havoc worldwide. For every victim of the Dixie fire, there are thousands who were hit last November by massive hurricanes in North and Central America, and hundreds of thousands who find themselves escaping rising seas in places like Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Global South. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in April, the number of people displaced by climate-change-related disasters since 2010 has risen to 21.5 million, most of them in poor countries and small island states.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe calls all of this “global weirding,” adding, “No matter where we live or what we care about, we are all vulnerable to the devastating impacts of a warming planet.”

Ten minutes pass.

The bored man with the stop sign pounds it onto the pavement like a squirrel defending its nuts. Waiting here in a quest to retrieve my mail is the least of the indignities of living in the scar of the Dixie burn. In fact, I’m among the fortunate. Although the fire did destroy my office in downtown Greenville, the erratic winds that bamboozled firefighters for months inexplicably shifted flames away from my house and the surrounding forestland.

Two neighboring communities had already gone up in a firestorm of torched trees and burning embers after a pyro-cumulous cloud collapsed above them on July 24th. Ten days later, it took less than 45 minutes for fire to reduce Greenville’s tarnished Gold Rush charm to smoldering ash.

The town has now lain comatose for more than four months. Those of us whose houses were spared drive through it white-knuckled, stomachs churning, compulsively reciting the names of our neighbors whose ruined homes we pass. Like the victims of climate disasters everywhere, such former residents have scattered to the — I’m sorry to even use the word — winds in a diaspora that’s shattered our community and left those of us who remain wondering how we can possibly rebuild our town.

Greenville has always been the stepsister of Plumas County, the least affluent of its four major communities, the least politically significant, and the first to be threatened with school closures. It lacks even one rich philanthropic resident. In fact, its median income declined 15% in 2019 to $26,875. Try supporting a family on that even without a major wildfire. It’s no surprise, then, that this neediest of Plumas County communities is suffering the most. As Solomon Hsiang reported in 2017 in Science magazine, climate change inflicts its heaviest economic impacts on the poorest 5% of the population, reducing average incomes post-disaster by as much 27%.

When California Governor Gavin Newsom visited Greenville shortly after it was devastated, he mentioned getting calls from friends at Lake Almanor, a wealthy, well-connected enclave 15 miles to the north — but not from our town, of course. The state authorized an immediate $5 million for disaster relief. But the response of county officials has been anemic at best. County supervisors have done little more proactive than declare a disaster. The county school district, responsible for the virtually undamaged Greenville elementary and high school campus (talk about survival miracles!), took no initiatives to turn its abundant facilities into safe, warm, functioning spaces for Dixie victims. Only recently has it agreed to house a resource center providing them with everything from blankets and jackets to soup and cat food.

At the most local level, the Indian Valley Community Services District, with bankruptcy looming, is struggling with how to collect the usual fees for water and sewer use from a town with almost no residents. The local chamber of commerce is in complete disarray.

Those of us who still have our houses live with reduced services. Frontier Communications, the only telephone and primary Internet provider, has always been known for its piss-poor service in this backwoods region of California. Four months after Greenville burned, we still have no landlines, no Frontier Internet, and no promise of either one for months to come. PG&E provided immediate electricity through diesel-belching generators, a service we accepted with gratitude, but gasoline, pharmaceuticals, and the mail I’m trying to retrieve remain a 50-mile round trip on distinctly clogged roads.

The anguish of living in a burn scar takes a toll. My dreams are littered with drifting pages of burned books bearing faces I no longer see here: a blue-eyed woman with a voice like a code-red alert, a clerk with straight black hair cascading down his back. We lock eyes before they sink into the dark.

Twentyminutes pass.

The stop-sign guy no longer needs to wave his sign to alert approaching vehicles. The line is now a quarter-mile long — too far for the drivers just pulling up to see him. He turns his back on us, releasing a puff of vaporous steam. Who could blame him for an occasional toke on a day when his most exciting activity is likely to involve turning his sign from “stop” to “slow”?

In October, heavy equipment began moving into Greenville: backhoes, bulldozers, dump trucks, stump grinders, and PG&E’s unmarked fleet of white extra-cab pickup trucks. The whine of chainsaws began to pierce the deadly quiet, while androgynous figures in white hazmat suits swarmed through the rubble. By early December, more than 150 of the town’s 800 destroyed structures had been cleared of debris, leaving lots as smooth as cemetery lawns awaiting possible rebuilding. Many of their former occupants, however, are gone, some having used instant insurance cash to buy houses in the neighboring, unburnt towns of Quincy and Chester. Others have moved farther away: Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Utah. Some are still here, sleeping in tents despite 20-degree nights.

Hopelessly haunted by the devastation all around me, I find myself revisiting the rubble. On one compulsive trip, I met a sweet-faced, curly-haired young man changing the tire of an aging, mud-spattered SUV. Its battery was dead, he told me with a wan smile. Since his house burned down, this has been his home. He looks weary but is amazed when I tell him about the resource center 10 miles down the road where he can pick up clothing, a sleeping bag, and food.

I wander off to the burned-out shell of the sheriff’s substation, once a copper-roofed bank owned by a woman who managed to nurture it through the Great Depression of the 1930s. No more. The hulking remains of a vault is perched awkwardly in the open amid the ashes of a sergeant’s wooden desk. My office was next door. No longer. I turn my back on Main Street and weep – for the history lost, the curly-headed youth with a charred future, all of us touched by this fire and the horrific costs climate change levies.

Thirty-two minutes.

The stop-sign guy has suddenly come to life. Strutting to his post in the center of the highway, he gives me a nod, turns the sign to “slow,” and directs me to follow the pilot car up the highway and over the grade. It’s a short-lived reprieve. Ten miles further on, we’re stopped again, this time next to piles of woodchips four stories high. The grief of witnessing entire mountainsides denuded of every tree, living or dead, is deepened by seeing potential timber and firewood ground up and hauled off. How many hundreds of houses could have been built or warmed by those piles of dead wood?

In spite of the devastation and in defiance of approaching winter, clusters of green shoots have nonetheless emerged from the charred soil beside the road, bearing leaves that wave in the breeze as we wait. We, too, are slowly emerging from the bleak, post-fire desolation. It was an all-out celebration when Evergreen Market, Greenville’s only grocery story, reopened on October 1st. I again shed tears in the check-out line as the owner overcame his shyness and greeted me with a handshake. The fellow who owns Riley’s Jerky, Greenville’s only locally made product — a dried-meat snack — has announced that he’ll rebuild at triple the former size. A realtor’s trailer occupies a cleared space near the grocery store, while in a food trailer next to the ruins of a former gas station, Mary’s German Grill is serving bratwurst and potato pancakes spiced with Mary’s cheery greeting: “So how’s the apocalypse treating you?”

Fifty-seven minutes.

A neon-clad clone of the first stop-sign guy turns his sign to “slow” and once again we creep down the road. I’m now nearly halfway to Quincy. No one died in the Dixie fire, a credit to the aggressive evacuation strategy quickly put in place by Plumas County Sheriff Todd Johns. But the shock of losing a home and the stress of moving multiple times as smoke and flames advanced have been devastating. Teachers who formed their identities around generations of Greenville students have lost them. Business owners who held forth behind well-worn wooden counters are broken. And now, the trauma of it all is beginning to pick us off one at a time in unheralded deaths that will never be counted among the costs of the Dixie fire.

Like people wracked by climate-disaster recovery everywhere, we’re facing a boot-strap recovery and a generational challenge. People in high places with money to share are not riding over the ridge to our rescue. Instead, we’ve been turning to one another, relying on our mutual commitment to the place we’ve long called, and continue to call, home. There’s a buzz of enthusiasm about the possibility of rebuilding an all-solar town and kissing PG&E goodbye. Others are researching how to use the locally made bricks that survived the fire in new construction to honor the town we lost. A group called the Dixie Fire Collaborative is working to coordinate a host of independent initiatives.

Strengthening us is the resilience of Native American Maidu tribal leaders and the experiences that kept them on this land. They stood up again and again after the destruction of their communities and they remain standing today. “This is a time of renewal, a time of immense opportunity,” says Trina Cunningham, executive director of the Maidu Summit Consortium.

One hour and 45 minutes.

After one more tree-removal stop, I finally arrive in Quincy to find a postal box crammed with slick flyers from attorneys promising to recover my monetary losses. Call it cruelty or irony, but among the envelopes is a bill from PG&E. I fill up with gas, still not available in Greenville, and face what could be another two-hour drive back through that same scarred landscape.

It’s dark by the time I arrive in Greenville. The lights still on in Evergreen Market are welcoming, but most of the town has no electricity or even poles to mount street lights. The only true intersection, at Highway 89 and what’s left of Main Street, is illuminated by a generator when it’s working. It’s a little chancy, but I take a shortcut on a side street past burned-out residential debris looming in the dark. And there, suddenly, are tiny lights spiraling improbably into the night on a 10-foot Christmas tree. Just beyond it, multicolored lights outline a set of stairs to a house that’s no longer there. Who knows where those lights will lead us?

Copyright 2021 Jane Braxton Little

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Jane Braxton Little, a TomDispatch regular, is an independent journalist who writes about science and natural resources for publications that include the Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, and Scientific American. She moved to Plumas County in 1969 for a summer that has yet to end.

One California night, I became a climate refugee

GREENVILLE, CA — At 10 a.m. on July 22nd, I interviewed a New York University professor about using autonomous robots, drones, and other unmanned devices to suppress structural and wildland fires. I sent the interview to an online transcription service, walked down the steps of my second-floor office and a block to the Greenville post office, where I mailed a check to California Fair Plan for homeowners' fire insurance. I then drove 25 miles to a dental appointment. I was lucky to make it home before burning debris closed the roads.

That night I became a climate refugee, evacuated from my house thanks to the Dixie Fire. Since then, it's scorched a landscape nearly the size of Delaware, destroyed 678 houses and decimated several communities in Indian Valley, where I've been for 46 years. One of them was Greenville, California, a town founded in the Gold Rush era of the nineteenth century, where I happen to live. I never imagined myself among the 55 million people worldwide whose lives have already been upended by climate change. Maybe no one does until it happens, even though we're obviously the future for significant parts of humanity. Those of us who acknowledge the climate disaster — especially those who write about it — may be the last to picture ourselves fleeing the catastrophes scientists have been predicting.

Climate change should come as no surprise to any of us, even in Greenville, one of four communities in rural Plumas County tucked into the mountains of the northern Sierra Nevada range, 230 miles northeast of San Francisco. No one would call most of us progressive. We're a social mishmash of loggers, miners, and ranchers, many of whom strongly supported Donald Trump (despite a disparate population of aging hippies living among us). We squabble over water ditches and whose insurance should cover which parade. We picked to death a solar-power project and took five years to decide on a design for a community building. The town has been in decline since I moved there nearly half a century ago, slowly sinking into its dirt foundations.

Despite Greenville's insularity, we've had some inkling that the world is changing around us. Old-timers talk about the winters when so much snow fell that they had to shovel from second-story windows to get out of their houses. Last winter, we got less than three feet of snow. In the 1980s, a warm March storm flooded Indian Valley with melted snow that floated stacks of newly sawn lumber away from a local sawmill into a just-created lake. We all cheered as brazen cowboys lassoed bundles of two-by-fours and hauled them off in their pickup trucks.

In a megadrought-ridden West, precipitation currently is half the normal amount, making it prospectively the driest year since 1894. Today, such modest clues to a changing climate seem quaint indeed in the face of the evidence now bombarding California and the rest of the West. As in recent years, this summer's fires began breaking out here far earlier than the norm. Already 647 wildfires have burned 4.9 million acres of the West, an area three times the size of Rhode Island. In California, 31 new fires started on August 30th alone — and any significant rain or snow is undoubtedly still months away.

For me, as for the rest of us in Plumas County, the Dixie Fire delivered the reality of climate change in a raging fury that has forever changed our lives. It started July 13th in the Feather River Canyon, a 5,000-foot gorge that carries water to more than 25 million Californians through the State Water Project. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has built a series of power stations here that dammed the former trophy-trout stream and converted its cascading energy into electricity, generating around 15% of California's hydropower. At approximately seven o'clock that Tuesday morning, a hydroelectric facility lost power at Cresta in the lower Feather River Canyon. Officials later reported a "healthy green tree" leaning perilously against a conductor on a pole with a fire burning on the ground near the base of that tree. By evening, that micro-blaze had exploded to 1,000 acres.

Over the next 14 days what came to be known as the Dixie Fire whipped up one side canyon and down another, driving residents out of the town of Indian Falls and incinerating their homes. It demolished Canyon Dam at the southern end of Lake Almanor. The inhabitants of the towns of Crescent Mills, then Greenville, and soon after Taylorsville fled. Some of us returned for a night or two, only to heed the sirens blaring from our cell phones mandating another evacuation. Believe me, we left in a panic: pizza parlors with dough still rising; beauty salons with hair littering the floor; offices with phones ringing. We fled on whatever roads remained open to wherever we could find housing or friends willing to take us in.

On August 4th, we watched from our separate hells as a 40,000-foot cloud the color of bruised flesh collapsed over the ridge west of Greenville. It was soon hurling flaming branches and red-hot embers down the mountainside, torching trees as it roared into town. We were transfixed by horror, snatching previously unimaginable images from Facebook, chasing down Twitter links, and trying to make sense of the devastation evolving on infrared maps.

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We were witnessing Greenville's near-obliteration. The Dixie Fire would thunder right down Main Street with its Western false fronts and tarnished Gold Rush charm. The 150-year-old warehouse converted to a museum years ago flamed up in a blaze of black-and-white photos, historic logging tools, and the genealogy of generations of the Mountain Maidu, the local Native American tribe. Fire gutted the brick-walled Masonic Lodge and the Way Station, our only local watering hole. Much of the town we had fled burned to the ground.

Hotter and Drier

The old-timers didn't tell us about fires like this. I witnessed nothing remotely as turbulent during a long-ago season as a fire lookout on Dyer Mountain near Lake Almanor. Even firefighters (and my husband used to be one of them) hardened by a decade of recent experience say that this fire is behaving unlike anything they were trained to confront or have ever seen. It has them bamboozled as it circles back toward landscapes it's already burned, storming through magic forests of old-growth red fir and stately stands of sugar pines, their foot-long cones just beginning to mature.

Dixie is roaring through forests transformed by a changing climate. The planet is simply hotter than it used to be. Worldwide temperatures have increased 2.04 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901. The United States has been warming even faster, adding 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. In the Sierra Nevada, the 450-mile-long tilted block of granite that lies on California's border with Nevada, a recent study by climate scientists at UCLA suggested that temperatures could rise a phenomenal 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. All that heat is grilling brush and small trees practically to the point of spontaneous combustion, priming them for the smallest spark. Scientists say that the number of days when Sierra forests are likely to burn has increased by 5% since the 1970s.

Nighttime temperatures are also rising, further confounding the efforts of firefighters to control such blazes. They count on cooler air and higher humidity after dark to help them in aggressive attacks. According to researchers at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, California's overnight lows are now running about 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 1981-2010 period that climate scientists use as a benchmark. Robbed of their after-dark advantages, firefighters report seeing flames torching off the crowns of trees in the middle of the night, something they're not faintly used to.

The Sierra air is drier, too. We used to brag about our low humidity, mocking our East Coast friends dripping sweat on a 90-degree day while we basked in dry heat. Now, that's a liability. Decreasing relative humidity has helped boost the number of days each year when forests are vulnerable to wildfire. It also accelerates evaporation from leaves, brush, and even dead trees, heightening the risk of intense fires and so exacerbating the challenge for firefighters.

Then there's the wind. Once upon a time, on hot Sierra summer days, we welcomed the breezes that stirred the air and cooled us. This summer, the least stirring of leaves instills fear. Dixie's erratic winds have, in fact, blown flames right back into previously burned areas, circling around the lines firefighters have built to try to control the fire.

Climate change doesn't start wildfires. The vast majority are caused by human activity. But by drying out trees, chaparral, and other vegetation, it creates a warmer, more arid world, one ever more susceptible to extreme fire behavior. PG&E, which owns more than 130,000 acres of California, has reported an increase in fire vulnerability in the area it serves from 15% in 2019 to 50% by 2021.

The utility company has all but admitted responsibility for starting the Dixie Fire. If that proves true it would be the fourth such wildfire linked to it, a record that reeks of blatant neglect of fundamental power-line maintenance. PG&E officials have touted their routine inspections of the two power poles located where the fire started. They found nothing wrong, they reported to the California Public Utilities Commission. But the company also considers the span of power line near where the fire started to be among the top 20% of its distribution lines most likely to ignite a wildfire by tree contact. Keep in mind that the Dixie Fire started less than a mile from where PG&E's power lines started the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burned 18,804 buildings.

Will corporate executives be held accountable for the Dixie Fire? Will they lose any sleep over the burly backhoe operator weeping publicly about the loss of his home with its newly remodeled kitchen? Will they spare a thought for the weary family of seven wandering through Safeway wondering how, as exiles, they'll even pay for their groceries?

Climate Refugees

All of us who live in the mountainous West have come to expect wildfires. We don't pack up at the first puff of smoke. During the early days after Dixie had started 50 miles down the Feather River Canyon from Greenville, I felt safe. Even when burning trees were visible from my office window as I grabbed photos and notebooks to evacuate, I still felt confident that I would return to my books and 40 years of journalism files, pieces ranging from local murders to ones on refugees from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and forest fires burning in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine.

It took two more days before the winds shifted, blowing flames down North Canyon toward the town, overwhelming our firefighters. Today, all that's left in Greenville's downtown commercial area is devastation. The places I knew for so long are now gone, including Hunter Hardware, the business that welcomed us when my husband and I moved to Indian Valley, two blond toddlers in tow; Sterling Sage, where I bought jewelry for my granddaughter from the town's most dapper businessman; and Village Drug, where our Plumas County supervisor took calls from constituents while dispensing medicines and school supplies. That was, in fact, Greenville's oldest building and housed the office I shared with a poet/playwright and a corporate administrator with a passion for knitting that we liked to call Fiber, Fact, and Fiction. Now, it's all ash.

How do you weigh the loss of such businesses against the hundreds of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances whose homes have been destroyed? Most of us waited days for some kind of confirmation about whether ours had made it or not, hanging on every word from state fire officials who described the advancing flames in twice-daily video meetings. We searched the Internet for shards of information and poured over maps with tiny red heat dots that might spell out our futures.

I danced for joy when I learned that my house had indeed survived, along with the timber-frame barn my husband had built from our own hand-milled timber. My ebullience plummeted into mourning for the sweet recluse who lost his beloved books and the widow whose family photos were all gone. Along Main Street in the town's historic residential area, not a house remains, not even a single standing wall among brick walkways and charred garden plots.

Those 678 homeless neighbors of ours join millions around the world fleeing cyclones, hurricanes, fires, and floods, among other weather events brought to a boil by a changing climate. Like the majority of them, the fire that forced us to leave our homes was local and, given the size of this planet, relatively small-scale. It dominated the news cycle for a week or two before being displaced (without being faintly extinguished) by those fleeing hurricane Ida in Louisiana and political refugees trying to escape Afghanistan.

Greenville has plenty of experience with privation. As the county's least affluent town we've rallied to keep our high school open when county officials planned to close it. We've rallied to install sidewalks and retain a health clinic after our only hospital closed. We may disagree about everything from who should be fire chief to the value of Covid vaccinations, but bully Greenville with an outside threat and we're as one. The enemies of our enemies become our friends.

Today, we are facing a threat like no other. How do you rebuild a community with no post office, no library, and where, in the absence of public transportation, the closest gas station is now a 50-mile round trip? Who will step forward for those too broken to restore themselves?

Greenville and Indian Valley are now poised between devastation and possibility. Even as smoke still rises from the ashes, there are faint signs of hope. The generation that left for far-flung parts of the world has organized online donations and relief sites offering food, laptops, vehicles, and cash to the newly homeless. There are plans to expand the community garden from a concept and empty raised beds to a future bounty of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. After a century of genocide and abuse, the Mountain Maidu, the area's first residents, have energized us with their vision of land and species restoration as they assume stewardship of around 3,000 acres of their ancestral territories. Some of us want to mount the works of local artists as four-by-four posters beautifying the fences designed to protect us from the toxic waste of burned-out buildings. Others are planning to stage local musical events on the lawn of the high school that somehow miraculously survived.

It's a long, tough climb from incineration to inspiration for a community that's physically scattered and emotionally shattered. Many of us remain in mind-numbing limbo, still awaiting word from some anonymous official that will allow us to return to homes, if we have them. Those of us allowed back, as my husband and I have been, are halted by National Guard troops and required to show paperwork proving that we belong here. We have little prospect of Internet or landline telephone service any time soon and we no longer expect consistent electricity from PG&E.

What may save us is the very reputation for defiance that has often been our undoing. We don't accept defeat easily, not even against an adversary as daunting as climate change. As long as the odds are stacked against us, the independent and ornery will respond. If the soul of a community is its resilience, Greenville will revive. Still, we're just a hint of what's to come in this country and on this planet if all of us don't change things in major ways. Remember, you could become a climate refugee, too.

Copyright 2021 Jane Braxton Little

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Jane Braxton Little is an independent journalist who writes about science and natural resources for publications that include the Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, and Scientific American. She moved to Plumas County in 1969 for a summer that has yet to end.

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