My front seat view of climate change in California

Wildfire, heavy rains and flooding seem to be increasing in ferocity.


Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives and writes in rural Northern California.

As I write these words, a strong wind is stirring the tops of the big pine, cedar and fir trees that surround our house in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

The branches of the oaks are doing a modern dance impression, swaying and swirling in ways that always portend the likelihood of breaking boughs, or create fears of spars struck off from the tops of the taller trees, tumbling down on rooftops below.

The National Weather Service says we’re in for more days like today, rainy and windy, with massive snow accumulations higher up, and even some snow dropping down to our level, 2,200 feet. Tomorrow is garbage-pickup day, and I’ll have to force myself outside to take our garbage cans down the steep driveway, slippery now with rain and pine needles.

The rain has found its way to my covered woodpiles, dampening much of what remains. And what remains doesn’t seem like it’s going to be quite enough, especially now that power failures threaten to plunge us into darkness and make our keyboards unresponsive. Unresponsive keyboards mean that we find ourselves isolated, not only from the news from far away but also from the immediately relevant news close at hand.

Are the creeks rising so fast that our roads might flood? Is our rocky soil now so saturated that it can no longer hold the shallow roots of the evergreens towering over our heads? Meanwhile, the trees dance more wildly, moving to the music of winds gusting to 50 mph or more. Lights flicker and anxieties mount, even for veterans of mountain winters that sometimes stretch deep into spring, and beyond. 

A flood under a bridge crossing over the South Yuba River in Nevada City, California. The high water drew local and regional visitors during an atmospheric river event across Northern California in January 2017.

There’s no real freedom from the apprehension, even as we sit warm and comfortable in our woodsy houses, a long way from the Donner Party experience. Just before Thanksgiving, a much less forceful storm blew through these same trees, bringing down an enormous old bull pine that missed winding up in our neighbors’ bed by just a few feet, instead crashing onto their patio, mere inches from the bedroom wall. The sound of that crashing timber stirred us from sleep, and the impact shook our house. And, just over a dozen years ago, when we moved into this forested area, the neighbor on the other side of our house saw a spar from the top of a cedar tree crash into his concrete driveway, piercing it like a spear. 

The good news is that the prolonged drought we’ve suffered here in California has ended. The bad news is that the profusion of greenery sown by the record amount of precipitation will mean the fire danger will be greater by August, and the fires that come will be hotter, fueled by what is now growing so abundantly on the forest floor.

The Feather River has been running so high that it has overfilled the reservoir that stores much of the drinking water for Northern, as well as parts of Southern, California. Two months back, people downstream from the Oroville Dam were evacuated — nearly 200,000 of them. The pressure of so much water caused the emergency spillway to crumble, with fears the dam itself might burst. I got caught in that evacuation though I live above the dam. It took me nearly 10 hours to get to Sacramento, a drive that normally takes under two hours.

Those of us who make our homes in the trees at higher elevations know a thing or two about severe weather because we’ve experienced so many violent extremes. We know all too well about fire and rain, blizzards and droughts. We also know that what we've been seeing of late is nothing like what we’ve seen in the past, and we conclude that manmade global warming, so damaging at the shoreline, has found its way to higher elevations, too.

That old joke we used to make at the expense of the flatlanders — the one about how we anticipated having oceanfront property up here before too long — just ain’t that funny anymore. Now, with President Trump and his operatives wiping out all efforts to combat the warming of our planetary home, my neighbors and I know that we can expect to see a whole lot more fire and rain, in the mountains and probably everywhere else.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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