Op-Ed: The End of Wildfire Season

In Big Basin Redwoods State Park—just miles from where I grew up in California’s Santa Clara County—nearly 97% of the land, and all of the park’s infrastructure, fell victim to the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire.

The place where I picnicked, walked in the woods, and spent my childhood with my family under a canopy of towering trees has been damaged beyond recognition. | Donna Callejon
The place where I picnicked, walked in the woods, and spent my childhood with my family under a canopy of towering trees has been damaged beyond recognition. | Donna Callejon

In Big Basin Redwoods State Park—just miles from where I grew up in California’s Santa Clara County—nearly 97% of the land, and all of the park’s infrastructure, fell victim to the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire.

This year, the biggest fire of the season is burning another part of my home state where I spent summers camping. The places where my brothers and I learned to fish for river trout and climbed a volcano (then got a T-shirt to prove it) are being consumed by flames. And it’s only July.

Fast forward and a few decades later, I lead the disaster response unit of GlobalGiving, which has raised more than $100 million to date for community-led recovery in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other crises. More and more, wildfires are on my mind.


Wildfire season is not predictable anymore

California’s wildfire season used to last from June to November, and major fires were few and far between. Of the five largest wildfires in California history, four were in 2020. The fifth was in 2018.

The way we’ve changed the climate and expanded our city limits has put us in crisis, with no clear beginning, middle, or end.

That crisis is expected to disrupt fire patterns around the world, causing more frequent fires in California and other parts of the western United States over the next 30 years, according to analysis led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

We’re already seeing the predictions come to fruition. From January 1 through July 11, 2020, there were more than 4,200 wildfires in California. For the same period this year, that jumped to an estimated 4,900 fires.

And when a record 4.3 million acres burned across California last year, killing 33 people, roughly 4% of the state’s land was cleared of trees, homes, and life. That’s five times the average number of acres burned in the past three decades.

The wildfires that ravaged the state last summer and fall left scarred lands that are prone to mudslide, landslides, and flooding. On top of that, California is facing extreme heat waves, and more than 94% of the state is experiencing severe drought.

Those conditions put Californians in a precarious position during another destructive fire season. The same communities that were worst affected last year could be forced to evacuate their homes, or temporary homes, once again. For the primarily low-income, rural, Indigenous, and minority residents, there’s no respite.

I can’t help but think about the home I grew up in Santa Clara. It’s on the market now. My parents paid $28,000 for it in 1962, and today it’s selling for $1.5 million. Already, California grapples with an affordable housing crisis. Wildfires only make it worse.

Low-income Californians and communities of color are most at risk of experiencing long-term housing issues following disasters. Now, these communities are facing what California officials call the “fire year.” The disaster response team I lead at GlobalGiving has likewise dispensed with the idea that there’s a finite period for fires in California.
 

Donna Callejon

Responding to unrelenting wildfires

So, how do we fight a “fire year?”

Double down now and invest in organizations that can help address and mitigate the impact of wildfires, community by community. They’re already in California, hard at work, and they know what’s needed and how to deliver the resources that will make a difference—now and in the long term.

Take the North Valley Community Foundation as an example. Based in Chico, their team remains determined in the wake of the destructive 2018 Camp Fire. Through the Butte Strong Fund, the foundation prioritizes flexible grants that strengthen community-based programs ranging from workforce development to housing.

And organizations like Nuestra Comunidad and Puertas Abiertas are working with migrant communities in Sonoma and Napa counties impacted by the 2020 fires. As GlobalGIving partners with them to support predominantly undocumented families, I think about the long summer days I spent as a kid in my grandparents’ cherry and walnut orchard, alongside industrious Mexican farm workers. They continue to be important contributors to our economy, but their living conditions have not improved dramatically since the 1970s. Drought, fire, and hostile federal policies have marginalized them further.

Nuestra Comunidad and Puertas Abiertas are providing rent abatement to help families recover from the latest fires, and they’re conducting outreach and distributing "go kits'' packed with evacuation essentials to prepare them for the next round of fires.

Both organizations are determined to reach people in their community who fear being “too visible” if they ask for help or who need information provided in a language other than English. Nuestra Comunidad has also identified that Black families in Sonoma County are more vulnerable to wildfires and their effects than their white neighbors, and the organization has expanded outreach to that community.

The new reality — fires and funders


As the climate crisis shifts the patterns that used to guide our preparation and response to wildfires, it’s clear that philanthropy also needs to shift. Donors have to recognize that supporting large relief organizations isn’t the only answer. While their efforts are needed, we must increasingly turn to local experts like Alma. She is a dynamic first-generation Mexican-American woman and leader at Nuestra Comunidad. Leaders like Alma know their community’s nuances and needs. They clearly see the path to better preparedness and response. We must get behind them and amplify their voices.

GlobalGiving’s California Wildfire Relief Fund will do that. We will support immediate relief and long-term recovery and preparedness efforts to counter the risk that the climate crisis poses now—and continually—for residents across the state.

The reality is that, barring huge changes in lifestyles and public policy, we need to be prepared for a wildfire season that never ends. We need to invest in emerging and community-based organizations and leaders who can move my home state toward a new normal—one where every Californian is ready for worsening wildfires but also one in which each Californian is recognized and assisted when they’re in need.

We owe future generations the opportunity to picnic with their families among the redwoods, experience the Sierra Nevada mountains, and feast on the bounty of the Central Valley’s fields. These places are more than names and landmarks—they're home. And it’s up to us to protect them before the beauty of California resides only in our memories.

Donna Callejon serves as Executive Lead, Disaster Response at GlobalGiving.