The fire began around 6.30 am on Thursday, November 8th near the Feather River on the tinder dry slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California. 90 minutes later it had spread over five miles southwest and reached the small town of Paradise. Another 12 miles west, as the crow flies, my husband and I were leaving the house of the friends we were staying with in Chico. The sky over Chico to the east looked startling and strange: the red and orange clouds seemed like a sunset with a thunderstorm about to break. By mid-morning it was clear that this wasn’t a weather event but a fire. Big, billowing smoke clouds darkened the sky as if we were witnessing the eruption of a volcano.

Then Cynthia Daley from Chico State University called to cancel the interview we had scheduled for later that day at the university farm. Thousands of people were trying fleeing from the fire, she said, the roads were gridlocked, Highway 99 had been turned into a one-way escape route south, the evacuation of Paradise was fully under way. Around noon Chico was still at the fringe of the trail of smoke that fanned out to the west across the Central Valley and as far as the Pacific. The trees of a nearby park stood tall against the backdrop of the black sky, the leaves illuminated to eerie fluorescence by the remaining sunlight of what could have been a beautiful autumn day. By the evening the fire had spread across 20,000 acres, the town of Paradise had been completely destroyed, first casualties were confirmed and with the evacuation zone extended to the eastern boundary of Chico thousands of people were now on the move. We went to bed numb, unable to process the scale of what was happening.

That night we woke to the calls of thousands of birds flying overhead.

The next morning we left early for the rescheduled meeting with Cindy Daley at the Chico University Farm, yes, she would be able to get there, she confirmed. Daley runs the university’s regenerative agriculture programme that brings together scientists and progressive farmers, the goal is to find the most efficient ways to build organic soil matter, improve water infiltration and retention, wean agriculture off chemical fertilizers and pesticides by growing healthier plants, and sequester carbon. So we talked about crop rotations, cover crops, compost and climate change. And we talk about the fire. Yes, a lot of factors contributed to the fire spreading so fast: high winds, air humidity as low as 7%, lots of dry matter in the forests which indeed haven’t been maintained as they should have. For one, maintenance requires money. Federal funds for federal forests[1], to clear the undergrowth and remove at least some of the trees killed by bark beetles. Over the past two decades higher than normal average temperatures across the western United States have made the trees more susceptible to beetle attacks.

‘But the thing is that there shouldn’t be any forest fires at all in November, California should be green by now’, says Cynthia Daley. After dry and hot summers, August and September have always been ‘fire season’ in California. But by late September the first rainstorms would normally herald the beginning of autumn. From October throughout the winter months and into spring regular rainfalls should continue. Climate change has thrown all seasons out of whack. By November 8th, the day the fire started, grasses, shrubs, trees – everything should have been green. After a five-year drought the winter of 2016/17 brought not just abundant rain, but rainstorms with torrential rain that caused mudslides and flooding. Last winter again saw below average rain- and snowfall. On average California’s fire season is now 84 days longer than in it was in the 1970s[2].

‘There is so much more dry matter that fires now burn hotter’, says Don Cameron when we speak on the phone later that day. Cameron runs a large farm in the San Joaquin Valley that produces a variety of vegetables, canning tomatoes, grapes and nuts. He is also the president of California State Board for Food and Agriculture that advises, among others, California’s governor on agriculture and climate change issues. ‘There have always been forest fires in California, some species even depend on it, the heat of the fire causes the cones to burst open and scatter their seeds’, says Cameron. ‘But now we see more crown fires, the whole tree burns and with it the seeds’. Like Daley, Cameron has no doubt that climate change is the root cause for a fire this late in the year. California has not only turned drier, it’s hotter, too. On his farm in southern California Cameron now sees damage through sunburn on vegetables like peppers. Sometimes temperatures rise above 30°C every day for weeks on end. Except for this year, he tells me: ‘There was a huge forest fire near Redding in northern California. The smoke drifted, and even 300 miles south in the San Joaquin valley we had this smoky haze for weeks, for a few days it was almost like fog. Weirdly enough this lowered the temperatures by a few degrees and prevented heat damage’. An upside to climate change everybody would be happy to do without.

Towards the middle of Thanksgiving week California finally is to get rain. The forecast comes together with warnings of mudslides and flash floods.

‘We have maybe 10 years to fix this, says Cynthia Daley’, as we stand outside the farm office. It is cold, the smoke blocks the sun. Two days ago I was wearing sandals and a t-shirt, now I could do with gloves. It is quiet, no birds call, the cows are silent. And it is dark. At noon we look at what seems to be a night sky with some red light, as if the world around us had turned into a huge darkroom, a strange, surreal film set where every object looks familiar and yet feels alien. Meaning and context have changed. Book titles come into my head. Darkness at noon. Paradise lost. A premonition of what’s to come, something between nuclear winter and the apocalypse – as if nature was posting some final climate change warning.

[1] 60% of California’s forests are owned by the federal government: https://grist.org/article/heres-how-california-could-avoid-wildfires-hint-its-not-raking/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=daily

[2] https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/11/17/californias-wildfires-and-the-new-abnormal

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.

Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
Images (c) and used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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