The other day here in New England it was chilly, rainy, and stormy and I complained. Where was the sun? The warmth? The summer? I happened to be with someone I know from California and he shook his head and said, “It’s fine with me. I like it rainy. I haven’t seen much rain in a while.” It was a little reminder of how insular we can be. California, after all, is in the fourth year of a fearsome drought that has turned much of the North American West, from Alaska and Canada to the Mexican border, into a tinderbox. Reservoirs are low, rivers quite literally drying up, and the West is burning. In rural northern California, where the fires seem to be least under control, the Rocky Fire has already burned 109 square miles and destroyed 43 homes, while the Jerusalem Fire, which recently broke out nearby, quickly ate up almost 19 square miles while doubling in size and sent local residents fleeing, some for the second time in recent weeks.
Fires have doubled in these drought years in California. The fire season, once mainly an autumnal affair, now seems to be just about any day of the year. (This isn’t, by the way, just a California phenomenon. The latest study indicates that fire season is extending globally, with a growth spurt of 18.7% in the last few decades.) In fact, fire stats for the U.S. generally and the West in particular are worsening in the twenty-first century, and this year looks to be quite a blazing affair, with six million acres already burned across the region and part of the summer still to go. And here’s the thing: though “I’m not a scientist,” it’s pretty hard at this point not to notice — though most Republican candidates for president seem unfazed — that this planet is heating up, that today’s droughts, bad as they are, will be put in the shade by the predicted mega-droughts of tomorrow, and that the problem of water in the American West is only going to deepen — or do I mean grow shallower? TomDispatch regular William deBuys, an expert on water in that region and author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, has already written dramatically of a future “exodus from Phoenix.” For clues to what we will all experience sooner or later, he now turns to California, that bellwether state in which, as he writes, the future always seems to play itself out first.