Thomas Fuller, the San Francisco Bureau Chief for the New York Times for the last four years, has been stuck covering wildfires for the last three very active fire seasons — and then came this one, starting off good and early. He is sounding really quite exhausted with it all.
Fuller has spent almost all of his career — 22 years of it — working for the Times, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been stationed all over the world, most recently in Bangkok covering Southeast Asia. But he's never had to live in a place that burns, in varying intensities, every year. In a piece published Monday under the "Bay Area Journal" tag, Fuller attempts to describe for a national audience how "inescapable" this revolving cycle of megafires is feeling for the Bay Area's eight million residents. And he gets rather literary about it.
When Bay Area residents, especially those inland, step outside their homes, a wall of hot, smoky air smacks them in the face — as if they were opening the cast-iron door of a furnace in a Dickens novel.
California homes are often flimsy one-story ranch houses, constructed with the understanding that residents will spend a good deal of their time outdoors. But the pungent haze has left families barricaded inside their homes, every window shut as flurries of ash fall on their driveways.
Yes, many people in California have been stuck in their "flimsy" houses for an abnormally large percentage of this pandemic year already. And the wildfires still burning all around us — and in multiple western states — are certainly making things worse in that regard, especially for those in San Francisco who often don't have air conditioners.
And perhaps we shouldn't blame Mr. Fuller for being appalled and tired at this seasonal scourge we've had to endure — with the fires directly impacting some residents who lose homes, or their own lives, but broadly impacting all of us as we choke on smoke-polluted air. He's only been here four years, and these have been some of the worst for fires, coming after a lengthy drought.
"The desiccated pastures and forests ready to burn, the choking haze, the oppressive heat — the planet feels sick in Northern California," he writes.
He describes seeing the smoke from Borneo burning every year when he lived in Southeast Asia, which would "hover in the tropical heat over large parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia." There, "It was often described... as a symbol of impotent governments and the impunity of plantation companies that were burning jungle so they could plant millions of acres of lucrative oil palms."
Here in California, though, we can't really blame politicians or mismanagement the way Trump always wants to — just last week he was spouting more bullshit about needing to "rake" the forests, not seeming to understand that we have 33 million acres of forest, much of it inaccessible by roads, or the fact that California burned for centuries before there were any Europeans here.
There's more of a narrative for a journalist to follow when there's at least an evil utility company to blame that's had a choke-hold on an entire half of the biggest state in the nation for decades. This time, though, it was just lightning. Mother Nature sparking flames on dry land the same way she has forever. Climate change has made things worse. Made the land drier and the fires bigger. We're in an "era of megafires" as Cal Fire officials have been saying for two years — some of the fires are huge but not horribly destructive, like the current Bay Area fire complexes, and some have smaller footprints but level entire towns and kill dozens, like the Camp Fire.
It's hard to keep saying "this too shall pass" when we know fire season has a good three months left to wreak more havoc and further beat us into submission while we worry about catching COVID. So, sorry, Tom... maybe the Times will reassign you again soon.
This is the price we pay for beautiful land and temperate weather the majority of the year. Perhaps it used to feel like a smaller price — the biggest fires felt more remote and less awful five or ten or twenty years ago. But back in 1991 the Bay Area watched the Oakland hills burn, the fire taking 25 lives and almost 3,000 homes with it.
Maybe it's just a matter of adjusting to each new degree of awful, and hoping next year isn't quite so bad.
Photo: David McNew/Getty Images