As we descended the last few miles of Kaiser Pass Road toward Huntington Lake, it looked like we were driving into an apocalypse. Fire had turned the sky above and between the oaks and pines a deep orange, and it was growing dark at noon. The Creek Fire had jumped the road and now Highway 168, the only way out of the mountains, was blocked. Car by car, sheriffs directed 75 campers, several journalists, and our dogs to a paved area behind China Peak ski resort. There was no cell service, but the sheriffs had radio communication with Cal Fire. They informed us our only way out was by helicopter — in an hour, or maybe 12. No one knew because there was zero visibility. So, we scrambled to organize necessary belongings into one backpack, as instructed, and to be ready at any moment.
My exchange student, Christian, and I had been looking forward to this camping trip. It was our last weekend to visit one of my favorite places in the high Sierra before the roads closed for winter. I’ve hiked and camped around the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Edison Lake for more than 25 years, usually staying near Mono Creek, a gorgeous, crashing trout stream. Coming into these mountains along rugged, windy roads always feels like coming home. I find serenity amongst oaks and cottonwood trees, willows and dogwoods, then hike higher into conifers, ponderosas, sugar pines, incense cedars and aspens.
But I’d seen the changes. The most extreme drought event in hundreds of years caused a huge die-off of the Sierra Nevada’s mature trees in 2015-16. Over the past several years, I saw groves of mixed pine and firs, brown and dead from the bark beetle that had invaded drought-damaged trees and stumps where majestic conifers once stood.
And now this forest I loved was burning. We were trapped, with no way to even contact our families, surely worried back home. Suddenly, after hours of waiting, a sheriff was on his loudspeaker, directing us to get in our cars immediately. Cal Fire and rescue volunteers escorted us down the mountain, toward the fire, which was burning on both sides of the road at Shaver Lake. I was terrified and wanted to weep at the devastation, but I held it together and kept on driving. They led us past the lake, through the town, and several miles farther. When we reached the town of Prather, about 45 minutes from home, we stopped to let our families know we were alive and safe. That’s when I broke down and cried.
The Creek Fire is now mostly contained, but tragically, 379,895 acres of forest have burned along with almost 900 structures. This year alone, California has seen more than 4 million acres burned by wildfires. Our overcrowded forests and history of fire suppression policies are only part of the equation. Drought and record-breaking heat waves have set the stage, turning our forests into the fuel that a lightning strike or any stray spark could turn into a raging wildfire.
In 2018, retiring Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told public radio station KQED, “Firefighters face the impact of climate change every day.” At our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing more fires and greater destruction. These wildfires also create a feedback loop that exacerbates climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
My experience with the Creek Fire has motivated me to learn more about how we can mitigate climate change. We must reduce the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. The Central Valley Asthma Collaborative, the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, student groups as well as faith and business organizations in our area have endorsed the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763). This bipartisan legislation puts a price on carbon pollution, spurring innovation. Studies show it will drive down carbon emissions by 40 percent in the first 12 years and 90 percent by 2050. The dividend will give low- and middle-income households a financial boost.
This holiday season, I am grateful to the Vermillion Resort staff, firefighters, deputy sheriffs and emergency personnel who helped get us home safe and sound. I’m going to show appreciation by advocating for policies that will help keep them safer too. I’m contacting my congressman, Devin Nunes, to ask him to support HR 763; I would be thankful if you would call or email your representative as well.
Jenifer Schwartz Casey is a college English instructor at Fresno City College, specializing in critical reading, composition, and literature. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast, camping and hiking through the Sierras with her family, friends, and dogs.