Go-Bags and Exit Plans: Navigating the New Normal

The ranch is fresh green, the Mexican daisies and Spanish lavender in full bloom, and the birds courting. We’ve had a fraction of our average seasonal rainfall. I find it harder to enjoy the brilliance of April, one of the most verdant months here. The valley oak leaves are large and still that first green-gold. The grasses have yet to burn off in even the sparest spots. The winds that ripple the grasses in great waves and shake the boughs of the ancient oaks are not yet worrisome—but they will be.

Climate change is here. The winds are reckless, the land and vegetation drier than it has been for a long time. We’ve suppressed fire for too long. The forest is overgrown with brush and too many trees.  Downed trees have died from infestations due to lack of fire and lack of water.

Fire and water.  We paid too little attention to both, and now here they are, Zen masters. Last week Cal-Fire and Firewise predicted that 1/3 of Napa County would burn with 20-foot flames. I can’t help but think of that this afternoon. In July or August, September or October, a windy afternoon like this will scare us. There will be red-flag warnings and possible Public Safety Power Shutoffs, and even if there are no fires here, there will be north or south of here–and smoke.  We’ve been through this too many times, and we know that this year has the worst of fire conditions so far.

How can I  learn to live with such uncertainty and danger? Is there any safe place? How can I adapt to this new normal of making go-bags and exit plans from the ranch for us, for the goats and llama?

April 14, 2021, our governor signed SB 85 into law, appropriating funds for fire preparation. Assemblyman Jim Wood stated, “We need to prepare for fire season like we are preparing for an impending hurricane.” The law provides for emergency vegetation management. What is the appropriate preparation for the magnitude of changes we are facing? In California and much of the West, these changes involve drought and fire alternating with flooding and mudslides. Our state’s measures will help clear vegetation in the short run but could also poison our waters and wildlife with herbicides. And thinning our forests while keeping our carbon-sequestering old trees is a critically important activity, done correctly. We need to also consider the resilience of the ecosystem in the way we do it. Our future depends on it.

I find myself hoping for a significant freak rain in May, that this upcoming fire season won’t be as bad as they predict. But the truth is, it may be worse. We may well be entering a megadrought. I guess the important thing is to stay steady in this panic and keep working to reduce forest debris on our ranch—and then, to enjoy life. Despite it all, this April is bursting with beauty. Apprehending the magnificence of life while also packing the go-bag may be the new normal.