Chimney Sweep

Wildfires and wildflowers: the certain indicators of a California summer time

A view of charred trees from Highway 50. Photo: Vanessa Hua

Recently, as my family cruised up Highway 50 toward Lake Tahoe, we glimpsed the destruction wrought by last summer’s Caldor Fire: charcoal forests up and down the ridges; metal roofs melted into puddles; and chimneys protruding from foundations, some of the more than 1,000 structures destroyed.

The sight shocked us. But it wasn’t the first time we’ve driven past the charred remnants of a megafire. Those have become a part of the West Coast landscape as much as its storied beaches and granite peaks.

For my 10-year-old twins, Didi and Gege, their childhood memories of summer take place against a backdrop of a fire season burning ever hotter, ever longer.

It’s a sickening “here we go again” ritual of checking the air quality before heading outdoors, rearranging or canceling activities, and worrying about the people caught in the crosshairs of wildfires while also wondering if the blaze might reach us too.

hop to get ahead of the fires, some Bay Area friends sent their children to sleepaway camps at the start of summer instead of later, rather than risk choking smoke or the possibility of an evacuation.

At sunset in Tahoe, my family skipped rocks at the beach. Gege found a smooth rock that he decided to pocket, while Didi proudly bounced a rock twice across the water.

View of a charred area in the Sierra Nevada as seen from Highway 50. Photo: Vanessa Hua

On the other side of the lake, smoke from the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park was starting to drift into the Tahoe basin, a line of smudge looming over the mountains.

The next day, as the haze thickened, blurring the view, Didi said, “I don’t want to be in a fire! I don’t want my stuff to burn up.”

We assured him that the fire wasn’t nearby, but he and his twin brother have experienced threats closer to home: planned power outages, red flag warnings, a sky that turned orange due to wildfire smoke.

And for a while now, they’ve been complaining about the heat in California.

“Why can’t we go somewhere it’s raining?” Didy asked.

Places that rain in the summer are usually humid, we explained. Then he announced that when he’s an adult, he’s going to move somewhere colder.

That could be in San Francisco or along the coast — if the iconic fog is still around then; it too is at risk due to climate change.

“I like Tahoe better in the winter,” Gege said. “I like the snow. Why didn’t we come more often then?”

It was a dry winter, we said. Trying not to fan the proverbial flames, we didn’t mention that global warming is a threat to the future of the ski industry. This week, Britain reached record highs in a heat wave, with wildfires also sweeping through parts of France and Spain.

As much as parents might want to shield their children from the gloomy forecasts, young people know what’s happening. In a survey released last fall, nearly 60% of the 10,000 respondents — people age 16 to 25 in 10 countries — said they were “very or extremely” worried about climate change.

About 65% of those surveyed agreed that governments are failing young people, while just a little more than a third agreed that governments acted according to science. Countries with the highest percentage of those worried were those already hard hit by the climate crisis, including the Philippines, India and Brazil.

Wildflowers near Carnelian Bay at Lake Tahoe. Photo: Vanessa Hua

Yet despite the havoc humanity wreaks, nature finds ways to persist. At least for now.

As waters receded in Lake Tahoe due to drought, dormant seeds of lupines became exposed and bloomed in a spectacular show in June, reportedly the most abundant since 2015.

On our trip in mid-July, we hiked through pine trees, our family marveling at the red blaze of Indian paintbrush; purple checkerbloom; patches of thimbleberries; and masses of mountain coyote mint, beardtongues, yarrow, bird’s-foot trefoils, and Woods’ roses.

Saying their names felt like an incantation, to protect the wildflowers and call them forth, now and in the future.

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