California's Fiery New Normal Means We Are All Vulnerable

"We were among more than 200,000 Southern Californians forced to evacuate our homes." (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

California's Fiery New Normal Means We Are All Vulnerable

Food & Water Watch Ventura County Organizer Tomas Rebecchi was forced to evacuate the devastating wildfires this week. He reflects on how almost losing everything has strengthened his commitment to his work and community.

You never think it will happen to you. On Monday, December 4, 2017, my family and our neighbors were unprepared to evacuate as a ravaging fire encompassed our community. My work is to protect Ventura County from the oil and gas industry and corporations that put profit before people. As I watch my community reeling from the still-uncontained fires, I know that a longer, more aggressive California fire season, fueled by climate change, will only worsen as we continue to burn fossil fuels. This is the new normal. This is how I experienced it firsthand:

The Night of Dec. 4th

8:00 PM - After a long Ventura City Council meeting, where I was urging members to vote to join an important renewable energy program, I left to find that the winter super moon was eerily red. Friends told me a brush fire had started a few hours earlier in Santa Paula, a rural city 20 miles away.

8:15 PM - As I returned home, my wife and I became concerned that the smoke might affect our three-month-old daughter, but were still unaware of the imminent danger that lurked.

9:00 PM - After a long day, I headed to our local taco shop for a meal. Suddenly, the wind picked up to almost 40 miles per hour and it began to rain ash and smell like fire everywhere. I huddled in the tiny taco shop with five other patrons as the Santa Ana winds overturned tablecloths and umbrellas outside.

9:30 PM - My wife and I decided to head to a hotel to protect the baby from the smoke. Just then, the power went out. We quickly learned that nearby hotels in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara had also lost power.

9:50 PM - We got a hotel room in Solvang, about 70 miles north. As we gathered a few mementos and a day's worth of clothing, we wondered if, as new parents, we were being overly cautious. Nearby friends were headed to bed. But we decided play it safe and go.

10:45 PM - As we were trying pack the car in the midst of heavy smoke and ash, a neighbor came by to check on us. He pointed towards the hillside which had suddenly ignited into a roaring fire coming towards our neighborhood. We left immediately, as the dark streets filled with stunned and frantic neighbors. I drove toward the freeway, as my wife began calling friends to alert them to the imminent danger. There were still no official alerts as we entered the freeway.

We could see flames destroying historical landmarks and parks, including the one where we hosted our baby shower just a few months earlier. Flames headed toward homes. Just then it hit us: Would we have a home to return to? Would our neighbors escape unharmed? I realized then that I had everything that was truly important to me in the car at that moment.

12:30 AM - We arrived at the hotel in Solvang and saw a map that a friend had posted on social media indicating that our neighborhood was under mandatory evacuation. We were shocked at how inadequate the warning system truly is.

5:00 AM - Still in shock, I finally went to bed.

Did this have to happen?

We were among more than 200,000 Southern Californians forced to evacuate our homes. The four largest fires have charred more than 116,000 acres, and as of this writing, none are even close to contained. The fossil fuel companies operating in Ventura County contribute to climate change every day. We have lived with the burdens thousands of active oil and gas wells for years, but now we face a longer, more dangerous fire season too.

The fires have hit the poorest and most wealthy Ventura County neighborhoods. The Westside, where we live, is home to the city's working-class Latino community. It is also nearby the city's hundreds of active oil and gas wells. The fires raged through the Ventura and Rincon oil fields and was worsened by gas explosions they caused. Worse yet, first responders don't have a clear picture where all the pipelines are, putting their lives and the community at further risk. How can local officials even think of allowing more neighborhood drilling?

So far, our home is untouched by the fires. We are now with relatives, four hours north in Hollister. Our neighborhood is still under mandatory evacuation and many of our neighbors are in shelters. The air quality is hazardous, ash is everywhere, schools are shut, and sadly, many homes are indeed lost. Officials warn residents to stay indoors or to wear protective gear outside, but many farm workers don't have that luxury. They are in the fields without proper respiratory protection and health care that they can rely on.

When the smoke clears, I will return to work fighting oil and gas expansion in Ventura County. I will also redouble efforts to support local and federal bills to transition the country to clean, renewable energy. The OFF Fossil Fuel Act, introduced by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, is at once visionary and more urgent than ever. It would halt all new oil and gas projects and set the country on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

Some claim those goals are unrealistic. I know that they are achievable --and desperately necessary--if we wish to prevent the loss of countless more homes and lives. In this new California normal, we all have our work cut out for us.

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