Hotter temperatures. Dryer conditions. Fire. Power outages. And record cold temperatures. Is this really the “new normal” for California? Climate change is producing extreme fires, both in size and catastrophic damage, and California has once again experienced another disastrous fire season.
In addition to the fires and evacuations, equally dramatic this season was the number of utility power outages or “Public Safety Power Shutoffs.” In theory, when hot, dry windy conditions exist the power shut-offs would reduce the chances of failing electrical transmission lines sparking new fires. This strategy means that everyone in a high fire area has to endure repeated power outages, and this year millions of people suffered through multiple days of having no power.
The rains have finally come to Northern California, but we are already experiencing drought conditions. As of this writing we are 89% below the average rainfall for the rainy season that begins on October 1 and ends on September 30. The rains have brought welcome relief, but the bigger rainfall picture is grim, with little indication that things are getting better.
Getting Through It
Laytonville was lucky this year and did not experience fires and evacuations, but there was a threat of fire for weeks that created a high level of stress throughout the community. We experienced power outages and warnings of more outages that never materialized. Gas stations closed, food went bad in grocery stores and in refrigerators, and many services were simply not available.
Fortunately the Laytonville Ecovillage has resources for when the grid goes down—off-grid solar, a generator, and propane. While the ultimate goal is to achieve net zero energy, utilizing 100% renewables, we’re not there yet. Although we have four solar systems, our off-grid photovoltaic system is small and has limited capacity. But it does get year-round use and is very handy when the grid goes down.
The use of generators and propane is a trade-off. Ideally, we would benefit from a large solar backup for when the grid goes down, but such systems are expensive. Using fossil fuels to provide our own power means we are contributing to global warming at the same time that we struggle with the effects of global warming!
Although we are currently phasing out propane, it was nice to be able to boil water and cook during the outages. We use these resources sparingly, but appreciate having them as a backup. Green neighborhoods, ecovillages, and co-housing communities offer a deep look into low-carbon lifestyles and demonstrate resilience in the face of natural disasters. Every step we take in a sustainable direction is good, and we have many more steps to take.
Anything we do to lower our carbon footprint is progress, and the working objective here is progress, not perfection.
There are many environment-related projects that ecovillages and sustainable communities work on, but one of the biggest is developing a new relationship to fire. Rather than shunning and avoiding fire we welcome the role it plays in the forest ecosystem to help reduce the chance of catastrophic fires.
Beyond achieving “defensible space” (in theory, 100 feet of non-combustible matter set back from structures), we are practicing sustainable forestry management on ten acres of historically neglected land. And sustainable forestry management means giving the forests an opportunity to burn in a sensible way.
Forests love to burn—and ideally they would burn in small, controlled ways similar to the controlled management strategies of indigenous peoples who understood the value of fire. Sustainable fire management allows for small, manageable burns that land stewards can practice.
Battling climate change is a huge, multifaceted issue that everyone can participate in. The scope of what needs to be done is epic, and, after this year’s fire season, more people and agencies are waking up to the fact that climate change is real and that we all must do our part. California’s forests are finally beginning to get proper management, and an increasing number of property owners are doing their part to make their homes fire safe.
Hopefully the rains will not cause amnesia to set in regarding the recent threat of fires and the urgent issue of climate change. For us, the rains mean we can work the woods safely and sustainably.