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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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California

Sep 10, 2018

Stoking the Flames: Climate Change driving the West’s Devastating Wildfires

Anthropogenic climate change contributed to California’s record-breaking wildfires. The future of fighting these fires grows increasingly perilous.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

The California wildfires of 2018 have seared themselves into the public conscience due to their alarming scale and destructivity. If you are one of the 50,000 ordered to evacuate your home, you know the severity of the infernos. If you are one of the millions of Mountain West residents concerned by the smoky atmospheric haze in your skies for the past month, you can appreciate the fires’ far-reaching impact. If you have followed the flurry of statements from the front lines and finger-pointing officials, you have seen a prominent fact emerge from the smoke: these fires and their effects were made worse by our warming climate.

One misconception about climate change is that it solely causes warmer temperatures. This oversimplifies the situation; global warming due to human activity results in a thinning protective atmosphere and increased solar radiation. The consequences of this heightened solar radiation manifest in myriad extremes such as floodings, drought, heat waves, and more frequent catastrophic weather anomalies. Research published by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change may also increase lightning strike frequency and generate high winds.

According to the 2016 research report, these factors, driven by our carbon-burning habit, are ideal for perpetuating and sustaining large fires.

California’s 2018 wildfire season was the volatile climax of an intensifying narrative of climate change factors. These factors form the backbone of this story. Abnormally heavy winter rains in 2016 and 2017 led to an explosion of plant growth, increasing the fuel load for a sustained flame. In the spring and summer of 2017, earlier springtime melt-off and intense heat dried out the surplus plant material. Come July of 2018, conditions were ripe for the monster Mendocino Complex Fire and several others to torch 600,000 acres, destroy over a thousand homes, and claim at least eight lives. Of the protracted fight to contain and extinguish these flames, president of firefighter union Cal Fire Local 2881 Cliff Allen remarked that “The new normal is we are busier than we’ve ever been”. And further destabilization is likely. According to director of CU Boulder’s Earth Lab Jennifer Balch, computer models forecasting future climate patterns reveal an increased risk of drought and heat waves and delayed fire-quenching autumnal precipitation. Gone are the days of predictable fire seasons and reliable natural limitations on the size and intensity of these blazes.

The “new normal” of California wildfire season is reflected in the numbers. In 2017, wildfires burned a reported 234,000 acres across the state. 2018’s wildfire season blazes on into its historically worst months, and 613,000 acres have already gone up in smoke. To put these figures in perspective, the five-year average from 2013-2018 is just 158,000 incinerated acres. Massive, destructive wildfires, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, are California’s new reality. The closer we align firefighting efforts with emerging climate research, the better we can protect vulnerable communities and save lives.

Cover Photo: A helicopter silhouetted by smoke from the Mendocino Complex Fire near Ukiah, CA. By Bob Dass, taken July 27, 2017.

This editorial opinion was written by The Outdoor Journal’s Kela Fetters.

Resources and further reading:

Jennifer Balch’s research summary, A thorough wildfire study by CIRES, A Washington Post special and an editorial board opinion piece, The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, A National Academy of Sciences fire study

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Op-Ed

Mar 05, 2019

A Visit To “The Border Wall”: Here’s What I Found…

This isn't an article with a political agenda, but an observation, about how two feet separated by three rusty, old wires can drastically change your life.

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WRITTEN BY

Evan Quarnstrom

As I listen to politicians, middle Americans, Democrats, Republicans, blatantly partisan news anchors, and bumper sticker flaunting owners of lifted pickups alike bicker about the severity of this problem, I begin to ask myself, “Do these people really know what they are talking about?”

Have they ever crossed the border? Have they ever been to the border? Have they ever seen the border with their own eyes? Do they know anyone who lives near the border? Do they know anyone who lives on the other side of the border? Believe it or not, there are people, just like you and me, who live beyond the abyss.

I will add the disclaimer that I am not an expert on immigration policy, but I come from the perspective of someone who lives in a border community, someone who crosses the border relatively regularly, and someone who knows people well on both sides of the border. To San Diegans, this may seem like nothing special, but only 2.5% 1 of the country lives in a county that borders Mexico. The perspective of a border region resident is one that most people who are arguing the issue do not have. Simply living near the border does not warrant claims of expertise on the subject, but in my opinion it does add a level of credibility.

Only 2.5% of the country lives in a county that borders Mexico.

Before things get heated, my intention is not to write a politically slanted piece. I will gladly state that my views on immigration are the polar opposite of the standing president, but I would like to take a more objective approach to communicate the ‘issue’ at hand.

So, to see what the fuss is about and to show those that have never been to the border what it’s like, I visited and documented an unfenced portion of the border in California — just as advertised via the endless, looping B-roll on the national news.

Here’s what I found…

This section of the border is actually very accessible. The well-traveled Interstate 8 comes within 1.3 miles of the border and the paved road comes within a half mile.
Selfie at the border to prove I did in fact take the photos! At about 3,000 feet of elevation, winter temperatures were a bit chilly in the low 40’s.
This section of the border lies in east San Diego County near the town of Jacumba Hot Springs. It was built in 1995 by the Clinton Administration. I did a little research and came across an interesting story in the LA Times about how the border construction ignited a decline in the town due to its symbiotic relationship with its Mexican sister town of Jacume on the other side. It’s a good read if you have the time.
Going on 25 years, the wall has seen better days. The rust and stress have caused cracks in some places. A theory of mine is that this could be caused by tectonic activity, as many small faults cross the border in this area. The San Andreas fault, which crosses the border into Mexico about 45 miles east of Jacumba Hot Springs, is a strike-slip fault, meaning the plates slide parallel to each other, offsetting the land by about two inches per year.
Peering into Mexico, I saw the first sign of crossing activity in this area — tossed water bottles
As you walk up the hill, the border comes to an end. Aside from the steep hill, there is a moderate gorge just beyond this point, which is why I presume they elected not to undertake the task of building a border any further. Getting heavy machinery up there would have been nearly impossible without seriously altering the land to build access roads. Just beyond this hill the border continues again.
Someone stored a large jug of water here for migrants. I know there are non-profits in San Diego that do this — cool work in my opinion.
As the steel border comes to an end, a makeshift barbed wire fence made by a combination of metal rods and sticks, yes sticks, proceeds to mark the border more or less (it isn’t a perfectly straight line, bending slightly into the US, so it’s not the exact border).
Sticking my camera over into Mexico.
A rope lying on the ground right where the border ends. Seems like a tool to tie the barbed wire fence together to create a safer opening.
Someone got snagged going through the barbed wire.
A big rock has been placed on the fence here to make a larger opening between the wires for people to squeeze through.

The difference that an arm’s length can make…

The above photo really strikes a chord with me because it demonstrates how a mere geographic distance of literally two feet separated by three rusty, old wires can drastically change your life. If you are born on that rock across the fence, you will be born Mexican, learn Spanish as your first language, and unfortunately likely face more challenges in attaining a comfortable economic situation in your life. (Of course, I say ‘likely’ because money does not necessarily mean happiness, not everyone wants to live in the USA, and not all Mexicans have financial struggles.)

If you are born where I stood, you are American, which can give you an opportunity that you may not have on that side of the fence. Also worth noting, being born on my side of the fence gives you the freedom to cross the fence as you please. Freedom of movement does not stop where the fence begins. For many born on the southern side of the border, they will never receive a visa that allows them to cross, never able to come to stand where I was.

Think about the difference that an arm’s length can make.

This leads me to a related thought (possibly a slight tangent). As with most things in life, I think patriotism is okay in moderation. But at the same time, I look at this photo and think, where you are born is pure luck. Putting aside the infinitely small chances that you were even born in the first place, you could have just as easily been born on that side of the fence. I mean hell, when you enter the world, there is a 60% chance that you will be Asian, 20% chance that you will be Chinese 2. Should we be proud of this luck?

I look at this photo and think, where you are born is pure luck.

Given the extremely small chance that I was born in California, USA, do I have an inherent responsibility to care more for those also born in my country, or can I look at every human on Earth on an equal playing field, all equally deserving of my consideration? I tend to lean towards the latter.

Again, nothing wrong with patriotism, but there’s a little food for thought to start off your day.

So… What did I learn?

I must say that I was not expecting to find much at the border, so it was mildly surprising to see such clear evidence of what has unfolded on this small chunk of land in the past two decades. The discarded items, the fence, and the worn trails tell a story. Between the plethora of water bottles, food wrappers, backpacks, clothing, and cell phones, it paints a picture of those that have undertaken the treacherous journey north.

I must admit, President Trump might be right about at least one thing: a bigger, more robust border wall would likely slow down illegal immigration into the United States to some extent, at least in the short term.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to follow the evidence of crossings straight to where the current border wall ends. The barbed wire fence showed clear signs of crossings, whereas the steel border did not.

I must admit, President Trump might be right about at least one thing.

On the other hand, if you think that the situation at the southern border is such a crisis for Americans that it needs to divert billions of our tax dollars, that’s a different conversation. I could go over a laundry list of more urgent things that need funding more than a wall, but that’s not what I am aiming to do in this article.

And for those that are worried about all the “rapists” that are crossing the border, I challenge them to attempt to understand, or at least hear out, the other side of the issue. A good way to start is to shift your perspective to an internal problem and read up on the crimes and political meddling (yes, Russia did not invent this tactic) that our country has committed in countries such as El SalvadorGuatemalaHondurasNicaragua, and Panama, just to name a few. It should be no surprise that life in the United States has caught the eye of those born to underprivileged situations in these countries that were deliberately destabilized by the US.

I hope that this story humanizes the people that are crossing, so they are not just an intangible idea that you see on the news, not just a game of politics. That sentiment is what I can say this quick trip reinforced for me. These are people that drink water, just like you and me. They wear jackets when it’s cold, just like you and me. They too brush their teeth. They are looking for a peaceful place to live where they can create a future for their family, just like you and me.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

This article first appeared on the author’s website: www.evanquarnstrom.com. All photos are by Evan Quarnstrom.

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