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A home burns as the Camp Fire moves through the area on November 9, 2018 in Magalia, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity, the rapidly spreading Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise and has quickly charred 70,000 acres and has destroyed numerous homes and businesses in a matter of hours.  (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wildfires: Heartbreaks and Healing Places

We will fight Wall Street locally as we deal with damages of climate change in our community, made worse by Wall Street real estate developers preying on hard-hit communities after fires.

Mary Kay Benson

Wildfire impacted folks mostly from Chico in Butte County, the North Central California region hard hit by climate fires, will carpool together to paint a giant street mural with paint made from wildfire ashes and charcoal from burned trees on their properties. We will protest against the financiers of fossil fuels and PG&E for the last big chance before Cop26 starts on Halloween day. On October 29 in San Francisco in front of BlackRock HQ, the largest financial investor in fossil fuel projects and major shareholder of PG&E is the perfect target to make our stand to #ProtectTheSacred. Their profitable investments set our communities on fire, killed my neighbors, and wrecked lives. 

PG&E pled guilty to 84 felony counts of manslaughter for starting the Camp fires due to deferred maintenance on their 99-year-old ancient decrepit equipment, and have not paid a penny to many victims.

Here in Butte County, we have experienced 4 climate-accelerated disasters in 4 years, with a Covid cherry on top. In 2017, our Oroville Dam collapsed after 27 inches of warm rain melted unusually deep snow, and sent 188,000 people fleeing for their lives with 2 hours warning. 2018 brought the devastating Camp fires, which killed at least 86 people and 14,000 homes were destroyed.  

PG&E pled guilty to 84 felony counts of manslaughter for starting the Camp fires due to deferred maintenance on their 99-year-old ancient decrepit equipment, and have not paid a penny to many victims. I know first hand that 25-30% of our homeless are fire survivors; I have shifted my efforts from stopping climate change to supporting my neighbors whose lives have been wrecked by climate change. In 2020 the Bear/North Complex fires killed another 16 people for the same reasons, and 1100 more homes were lost.  

In 2021 during our mega-drought, the Dixie Fire started in the exact same place as the Camp fire: Pulga. Our skies were blackened and the smoke rated so unhealthy most days it kept many of us indoors again for weeks at a time while our power kept getting shut off when the hottest temperatures arose and/or the winds blew. PG&E still owes most of our fire survivors payments but tied those to how well the corporation's stock prices are doing, and that's not doing well at all. The major stockholders are hedge fund managers, and they just bailed out, except BlackRock. 

Among us is fire survivor Wendy McCall, whose home in Paradise burned down in 2018 Camp fires, where she escaped with her then five-year-old son, her disabled Mom for whom she was caregiving, and only some of their pets—the ones they could find. Her Mom told me the chicken coop and chickens did not survive as all else went to the blazes. We collected charcoal ashes from her Paradise property last week, which we will include in our mural painting. There are still whole burnt trees standing because as Wendy observed, the PG&E subcontractors hired to remove the dead trees, instead of focusing on the burnt ones, focused on those which could be sold for lumber. Wendy is also a microbiologist with a B.S. from CSU Chico and President of the Mycological Society of the North State. Mushrooms are her specialty and she is mostly focused on soil remediation through them now. She teaches an after-school program for traumatized kids through art and plays in Paradise. 

Allen Myers, a local filmmaker, and curator of the Earth Day Film Festival, lost his family home in Paradise to the mega-fires. His family also are orchardists, Nobles Orchards, renowned apple growers, and participate in our Farmers Markets and U-Pick to the public. Allen told Greenpeace recently, "It is true that we are living in the wake of climate disasters. Those people who have been insulated and disconnected from the planet that we are on—those people who are at the top of corporations—the oil and gas industry, those that are elected to positions of power, insulated in their halls of decision making, these effects will reach them. If they are not feeling it yet, they will. We are all connected. If there's one thing the global pandemic has taught us—is that we are all connected. So the climate disasters that we are feeling now, they will too, eventually. So what we decide today will determine our future. We are here today to call upon all to stop extracting fossil fuels. It is a call upon all of us, upon leadership to put in policies that will protect a livable future." He has worked diligently to help heal his home community as with his group, Regenerating Paradise, and on social media. He made the film, A Message from the Future of Paradise, which illustrates his vision with art.

"I've seen it as I've grown up in these hills. I'm from Paradise and I've watched with my own eyes the climate change. We knew growing up that we'd probably be rained out on Halloween. Well come November 8th 2018, we have unseasonably hot and dry conditions, such that in a matter of minutes my hometown was destroyed by the Camp fire, that every home I ever played in as a kid, that the schools I went to, that the hospital I was born at—there has been an erasing of my identity and my community's identity because of this disaster.  We know what it's connected to and we know that we have to do things differently," Allen said.

Ali Meders-Knight, our local Mechoopda tribal recognized Master in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as well as a prolific artist who often has done the theme piece for most of 350 Butte County's largest events. Here is the art 350 Butte County commissioned Ali to paint in 2019.

"Ali Meders-Knight designed the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Certification Program through Chico State, often at Verbena Fields managing native plant educational projects. She's been appointed by the Federal Forest Tribal Relations Office to the Tribal Programs Implementation team for Region 5 (as part of the National Tribal Relations Strategic Plan), and to the Environmental Conservation and Education Committee for the Northwest Forest."

Ali has been teaching and developing her land management wisdom programs for 20 yearsand has a team of TEK certified and now many are also Red Card certified prescribed burns wildfire experts. 

I've seen a video of Ali laying fire to the Mechoopda land when the conditions were perfect, and to me, it was like she was dancing. She stoops and grabs a handful of dried grass and starts making a chain of them and guides the fire where she wants it to go, pointing out the white smoke as good and explaining how it actually fumigates the trees and protects them while "cool burning." She talks about all the drought-tolerant local native plants which can again conserve the water here in droughts. Alder trees were used by Indigenous people as fire breaks because they burn so slowly. Wildtending is the name applied to managing vast tracts of land as the Mechoopda has done for at least 20,000 years. "No matter the case, the most deadly, destructive, & powerful force threatening our lives & community is weather-related disasters. Be it drought (lack of water), flooding, extreme heat, & wildfires we all will come to understand this reality in time."

Ali has been painting since she was a child, and will design the mural that our northern team will help her paint in San Francisco Friday morning on the 29th. 

We in Butte County who seek to avoid a future with even more destructive impacts of climate change will make our voices heard on the eve of the Cop26 Glasgow climate talks.

I am a TEK student of Ali's as well as the Manager of Chico 350 Butte County and Secretary on the Board of North State Shelter Team, and just finished her part as a team researching and writing the first baseline Food Security Assessment for Butte County Local Food Network. In addition, I am an Admin for the coalition of all homeless service providers, mutual aid and volunteers working on our homeless and housing crises called Butte County Shelter for All, which keeps expanding and now includes the advocates for police response reform. Since the fires, many of our local climate crisis solutions environmentalists began volunteering instead in disaster relief in all the intersectional cross-pollinations that arise. I'm part of the Poor People's Campaign as well as Stop The Money Pipeline (which targets BlackRock along with Chase Bank and Liberty Mutual Insurance as the big three funders). North State Shelter Team recently deployed our Clean & Green Mobile Shower Units and mobile porta potty unit to the smaller camps while Haven of Hope services the largest one.

We had a housing crisis before the disasters, now we have thousands of homeless in Butte County, which the Board of Education says includes 1500-2500 school-aged students. The Butte County Housing Authority says we have had about 7,000 homeless since the Camp fires. The city of Chico is under a Preliminary Injunction by the 9th District Court's federal judges for several unconstitutional ordinances which criminalized being poor and/or homeless. A possible agreement is pending with the promise next spring of a sanctioned Pallet shelter park with all services at the current BMX track, which got an eviction notice to be out 12/31/21 and $600K to move. Meanwhile, winter is fast approaching the tents of the 19 unauthorized homeless encampments here. The city council uses the number of 571 homeless from the last Point In Time Survey done in 2019 before Covid quashed the 2020 count. Today the Washington Post wrote of another heartbreak as the last disabled seniors are getting evicted from their FEMA trailers with no place else to go.

The food pantries, service providers, and mutual aid groups I've surveyed for the past several months all indicate the demands are going up not down, as moratoriums on evictions and unemployment insurance extensions end.  All the local groups I volunteer with agree on similar solutions to provide housing and support services to all as well as solve our climate disasters with the wisdom of TEK.  It is an honor to serve our beloved community.  

We in Butte County who seek to avoid a future with even more destructive impacts of climate change will make our voices heard on the eve of the Cop26 Glasgow climate talks. We will fight Wall Street locally as we deal with damages of climate change in our community, made worse by Wall Street real estate developers preying on hard-hit communities after fires. We hope you will join us.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Mary Kay Benson

Mary Kay Benson is an environmentalist, volunteering with 350 Butte County, Frack Free Butte County, Protect California Food, Last Chance Alliance, and Stop the Money Pipeline. She researches and writes for Butte County Local Food Network’ first baseline Food Security Assessment. She is the Secretary of the Board for North State Shelter Team which now provides a mobile showers unit and porta potty which travel to our homeless siblings’ encampments, as well as builds micro shelters (Conestoga huts) and tiny homes for our homeless, 30% of whom are local wildfire survivors.

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