‘Sacred places burn’: living on the frontline of global heating


‘Sacred places burn’: living on the frontline of global heating

From extreme weather obliterating homes to rising sea levels ruining crops, climate breakdown is a terrifying daily reality for many

Amie Ferrier, a resident of the Sierra Nevada foothills in California, US

in New York

Last modified on Thu 4 Nov 2021 03.02 EDT

Throughout the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, the Guardian will be publishing the stories of the people whose lives have been upended – sometimes devastated – by the climate breakdown.

Amie Ferrier, United States

Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California, our community is quickly becoming far more fire-wise out of necessity. The changes that our home and lifestyle have undergone are numerous, from the serious and scary to the small habits that are starting to feel routine.

Homeowners’ insurance is becoming extremely hard to have and keep, for example, and the prices are skyrocketing.

Our emergency go bag now remains packed year-round, and when wind events are especially severe or we’re under a red flag warning, we take the extra step of leaving our boots, headlamps and coats right next to the door in case we have to evacuate quickly overnight.

We seldom leave town any more during the months of August, September and October – we prefer being at home to run irrigation, defend the house and help our friends when fires strike, and the anxiety of leaving can outweigh the pleasure of vacationing. We also try to never let the gas tanks fall below 50% full during fire season. I recently heard a neighbour say “half a tank is an empty tank”, and a lot of us who witnessed the harrowing bottlenecks of traffic in other large California fires learned how critical it is to leave early and have plenty of fuel in the tank.

We have a homemade list on our fridge with three columns: no time, 10 minutes, and 30 minutes. Whenever we have to evacuate, we run and grab the list. It’s infinitely helpful to refer to in stressful moments. Each column has a list of what must be done to safely leave the house, including shutting off the propane tank, turning on all yard irrigation, checking on elderly neighbours and moving any cars out of the driveway so that fire engines can pull through.

A fire-ravaged property in the Fresno County community of Pine Ridge in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains

My husband and I feel grateful that all we have really lost so far are unpaid days of cancelled work, as well as weeks shut into our house when the air quality index was at hazardous levels in the high hundreds. There is also the heavy grief that many of us in affected regions feel when special and sacred places burn, friends and strangers are displaced, animals perish and the sun is an eerie blood red in the sky. It’s jarring and sad watching precious things being lost in real-time.

The upshots, though, are true testaments to our community: neighbours checking on neighbours, friends rushing to help evacuate livestock or chainsaw and rake, and pack trucks, strangers opening up their homes and guest bedrooms, and people showing up to help without ever being asked.

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