A Little Green

Extreme weather: The new normal?

Episode Summary

Each week seems to bring news of another catastrophic weather event, from hurricanes to flash floods. It’s clear that these events -- that many communities have been facing for years -- are now intensifying and playing out all over the world. Christina asks a tough question: are these extreme weather events the new normal? And can she do anything about it?

Episode Notes

Each week seems to bring news of another catastrophic weather event, from hurricanes to flash floods. It’s clear that these events -- that many communities have been facing for years -- are now intensifying and playing out all over the world. 

Christina wakes up to the aftermath of one such event: the 2021 Bootleg wildfire.

The massive West Coast wildfire spewed unhealthy amounts of smoke across the country, reaching her all the way in New York. Christina asks a tough question: are these extreme weather events the new normal? And can she do anything about it?

These questions lead her to a recent study from climate researchers Tom Corringham and Rosana Aguilera. They found some troubling evidence about the effects of wildfire smoke on human health, and they join Christina to share their takeaways. The question becomes, what can we do today to prevent devastating wildfires? 

Christina revisits climate justice, a concept introduced in our last episode. According to a climate justice approach, the people most affected by climate events likely have the knowledge to develop solutions in their communities. Christina gets in touch with Jade Begay, the Climate Justice Campaign Director for NDN Collective, to learn more about climate justice, and how Indigenous groups are uniquely poised to lead the way on climate.

With Jade’s insight in mind, Christina talks with someone who is on the frontlines of these wildfires, and who is actively leading solutions. Bill Tripp is the Director of Natural Resources for the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, and he explains the history and importance of cultural fire use; a promising and proven practice.

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Episode Transcription

[Phone rings]

Beth: Hey. 

[00:00:05] Christina Thompson: Hi. 

Beth: Have you seen the sky today? 

Christina Thompson: I know it's so 

Beth: It's so hazy. 

Christina Thompson: Yeah, it's bad.

Christina Thompson: In July of this summer, I woke up to unusually hazy skies here in New York. 

Beth: It says 80 wildfires in the west are burning across 13 states. 

Christina Thompson: The air was filled with smoke that had traveled across the country from the massive wildfires we've been seeing out west. 

Beth: What do you think that means for our air quality? 

Christina Thompson: Bad. They said it was, like, an unhealthy level today and that everybody should be wearing their masks outside. 

Beth: Finally got our masks off for one reason and then have to put them back on for the other. 

Christina Thompson: Even though I'd been reading about these wildfires happening on the West Coast, it was hard to imagine their true scale until the smoke descended on us 3,000 miles away.

Christina Thompson: You know, it's easy for this stuff to feel very far away when we're in Manhattan. You know, like where's a wildfire around here? And then lo and behold, we wake up and our sunrise is like the haziest thing ever because it's the smoke from the West Coast. 

Beth: Yeah. 

Christina Thompson: I'm no scientist, but it's clear that our weather is changing. These once-in-a-while occurrences now seem to be playing out all over the world all the time, from flash floods to wildfires. And the writing is on the wall. Of course these events are driven by climate change. 

You know, for a long time, climate change has felt like this big looming phenomenon, especially for people like myself, who haven't been on the front lines of its impacts. Sometimes I feel like that guy in Austin Powers, just waiting for the steam roller to flatten him, to use a completely ridiculous reference. But it's obvious this crisis is quite literally at my doorstep. And so I have to ask the question that's hard to face: are these extreme events the new normal? And if so, is there anything that I can even do about it? 

I'm Christina Thompson and this is A Little Green Podcast.

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[00:03:11] Christina Thompson: Because there are so many different kinds of extreme weather events happening all over the world, I decided to focus on the one right in front of me, or rather, surrounding me: wildfire smoke. I wanted to know more about it. So I consulted my old friend Google and came across an NPR article published earlier this year with a pretty unsettling headline: “Study Finds Wildfire Smoke More Harmful to Humans Than Pollution from Cars.” 

What?! The study was published by a group that actually specializes in extreme weather events. So I reached out to them to learn more about their findings. 

[00:03:43] Rosana Aguilera: My name is Rosana Aguilera. I'm a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and I mainly work in topics related to climate, weather extremes, particularly wildfires, and the impacts on human health.

[00:04:00] Tom Corringham: My name is Tom Corringham. I'm a research economist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I also, I work with Rosana in, uh, the Weather Extremes and Climate Impact Analysis group, or WECLIMA. And my work is focused mainly on the socioeconomic impacts of extreme weather as it relates to climate change.

[00:04:20] Christina Thompson: if you didn't catch that the first time, that's the Weather Extremes Climate and Impacts Analysis group, or WECLIMA. 

[00:04:27] Tom Corringham: I guess we're a loosely affiliated group of researchers. We all work in the same lab and, uh, our focus is, uh, weather extremes and climate change. We're a pretty diverse group, we're from all around the world. We look at the physical processes associated with climate change, so the increasing temperatures and the increased variability in the weather, and we apply our models to try to predict what's going to happen in the future.

[00:04:51] Christina Thompson: WECLIMA researches the science of extreme weather like heat waves and wildfire. And also how these events affect people; our society and our health.

[00:05:00] Tom Corringham: You know, my focus is largely on, uh, the economic impacts to different sectors of the economy, so transportation, agriculture, flooding, uh, flood damages, and ways that we can hopefully mitigate these impacts going forward. 

[00:05:13] Rosana Aguilera: I look mainly at wildfire and, um, smoke and their impacts on, on health. 

[00:05:19] Christina Thompson: Rosana, why was wildfires your, why was that your focus?

[00:05:23] Rosana Aguilera: We have seen that wildfires are actually increasing in frequency in this part of the US and other regions in the world. And also there are studies that have shown that this fine particulate matter that comes, you know, as a product of, of wildfire smoke, uh, which is the component of wildfire smoke, has been increasing in the western US, uh, whereas in other parts of the country, you know, this type of pollution, you know, just in general, fine particles, has been decreasing due to policy implementation and other, um, things that have been put into place. 

[00:05:56] Christina Thompson: Wow. Okay. So even though we, as a society, have cut back on pollution -- which is great -- these high intensity wildfires are still spewing dangerous pollutants and at an increasing rate. Rosana explained to me that we've historically seen this fine particle pollution come from human activities like... 

[00:06:13] Rosana Aguilera: Traffic emissions, industrial emissions, emissions from agricultural activities. 

[00:06:18] Tom Corringham: As Rosana mentioned, there are a number of sources of air pollution or fine particulate matter that can be harmful to human health. You know, traditionally it was traffic, it was industrial sources, and the impacts of those were, were felt largely by the communities that were nearest the industrial sectors, or that were nearest the freeways. And we've done a really good job in Southern California and in the United States of, uh, regulating those forms of pollution. So our cars are much cleaner today than they were in the 1970s, for example. Wildfires though, it's not something that you can regulate. You can't really put a scrubber on these things. 

[00:06:52] Christina Thompson: Rosana told me that this kind of smoke pollution, fine particulate matter, is set to increase in the Western US. But this is the exact smoke that's traveled all the way across the country to right here on the East Coast. So what happens when we breathe in all this fine particulate matter? 

[00:07:08] Rosana Aguilera: This fine particles are mainly classified by the size. So in this case, the PM 2.5 has a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. So it's much, much smaller than the diameter of a human hair. So those particles can penetrate deep into our respiratory system and then also potentially enter the bloodstream. So that's why they're very problematic, because they can also impact other organs in our, in our bodies. 

[00:07:33] Tom Corringham: In terms of vulnerable communities, obviously people with preexisting, uh, respiratory conditions are at the greatest risk. But anyone who works outside, uh, agricultural workers, construction workers, these are people who need to be protected, uh, you know, to whatever extent that we can. And then obviously our firefighters, uh, we need to do everything we can to protect them from the acute and long term impacts. 

These fires traditionally have mainly affected the, um, the backcountry, so people who live out in what we call the wildland urban interface and also in rural communities. But we're seeing in the last few years, these fires are getting so big and so intense that the smoke blankets the entire state. We saw smoke, extending all over the West Coast, out across the Pacific, and even as far east as New York. So it's affecting a wider and wider section of the population. 

[00:08:22] Christina Thompson: The 2021 wildfire season is poised to be one of the most severe ever. So how do we deal with all this impending smoke pollution? If we can't regulate or control the smoke, and apart from continuing to wear face masks and arming our homes with air purifiers, is there anything we can do? 

[00:08:40] Tom Corringham: I do think one of the most important things is letting our elected officials know that we care about these issues. So just taking some time out and calling a representative and speaking to their staff, I think is a pretty significant thing that any of us could do. You know, we are all part of the solution and when we work together I think we can achieve great things. And, you know, people ask me, “oh, you do climate science and environmental policy, it must be really depressing.” But I actually think the opposite. I think it's a significant challenge that we face, but so many people are doing so many good things in this space and I'm pretty grateful for people like you and everyone else that we get to speak to who gets the message out. Because we can do all the science in the world, but if nobody's listening then, you know, what good does it do? 

[00:09:21] Christina Thompson: You know, when I started making this whole podcast, I knew I was going to meet a ton of amazing people and learn so much more about our environment. All kinds of interesting information to help continue and ideally contribute to the climate discussion. What I don't think I was wholeheartedly prepared for though, were conversations that would shake me to my core and stick with me months and months later. 

I want to share a conversation that I had with someone who is on the front lines of these huge wildfire events. And he's also at the forefront of promising solutions. Meet Bill Tripp.

[00:09:54] Bill Tripp: My name's Bill Tripp. I'm the Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Tribe's Department of Natural Resources. We're located in the northwestern corner of the state of California. 

[00:10:08] Christina Thompson: Bill is a member of the Karuk Tribe and an expert in fire management. The Karuk territory has been a site of some of the world's most intense fires. He's also the co-author of the Tribe's climate adaptation plan, a plan that addresses wildfires directly.

[00:10:21] Bill Tripp: I've worked here at the Department of Natural Resources for about 28 years now and I've been deeply ingrained in the process and practice of cultural burning since I was four years old. Raised up in my Aboriginal village or ancestral village, on the lower Salmon River, learning from my elders about those practices. And so that's a little bit about me. 

[00:10:47] Christina Thompson: Cultural burning or fire use. I learned that this is an example of what's called traditional ecological knowledge. 

[00:10:53] Jade Begay: We believe that climate justice is about connecting people back into their land. We fully believe that Indigenous and Native communities already have solutions to fight the climate crisis, and a lot of people name that knowledge or that skill as traditional ecological knowledge or Indigenous ecological knowledge.

[00:11:18] Christina Thompson: That's Jade Begay. She's the Climate Justice Campaign Director for NDN Collective, an organization that works to build Indigenous power.

[00:11:26] Jade Begay: This is, you know, knowledge that we've had for centuries and maybe even longer, but really just wanting to support people reconnecting with their land and their traditional ecological knowledge and practices so that they can prepare for the climate crisis and then they can, you know, adapt and mitigate to it.

[00:11:48] Christina Thompson: I learned that because Indigenous groups are deeply tied to the land, they are uniquely equipped to lead solutions in these places. Bill went on to tell me more about this distinct relationship with nature. 

[00:11:59] Bill Tripp: Karuk people kind of approach some of these things under different principles, so it seems, than a lot of contemporary society. And I think this is probably true for a lot of Indigenous populations as well. But, you know, we view the place we're in as, not something that's owned or something that we have dominion over. We view it more of a relationship and a responsibility. We see the plants and animals and even the, the rocks and the stars and everything as our relations, as kin. And so, you know, we prefer to operate in a manner that views those things as having rights of their own, and that we treat them like we would want to be treated as well. 

And so when it comes to the matter of rights, we see ourselves as retaining rights to occupy our, our Aboriginal homelands, and to utilize and manage these in the way that we've, we've always done. And contemporary society and colonial occupancy and influence has, has since kind of flipped things around kind of backwards from our, our worldview. And so that's why we, we work hard to revitalize our Indigenous knowledge, practice, and belief systems in hopes that, you know, someday soon we can get back to putting those back into, into place in a meaningful way, and at a meaningful scale. 

[00:13:32] Christina Thompson: Having a responsibility to nature rather than seeing it as something to dominate or exploit seems the way things ought to be. 

What if this meaningful scale that Bill mentioned could be achieved, and Indigenous knowledge actually guided the way that we interact with our planet? Well, this was the norm for most of human history. Fire use is a great example of one of these traditional ecological practices that did make a huge difference and would continue to if implemented broadly.

One of the biggest climate events that your region is facing is obviously fires and wildfires, and I was just curious if you can kind of explain the relationship with fire as it relates to the work you're doing and the Tribe. I guess also how the wildfires are thus impacting the territory. 

[00:14:20] Bill Tripp: Well, historically, Karuk people burned at a much larger scale than folks have understood for quite some time. You know, everyone speaks back to anecdotal evidence of, you know, small patch burning and stuff like that. And then they would just apply that notion to scale across broad landscapes and assume that patch burning is just a little bit of burning.

[00:14:44] Christina Thompson: Cultural burning has been around for millennia. It's a tried and true tradition that actually enriches the ecosystem and prevents devastating wildfires. Fire is seen as a tool, a way to reduce threats from large fire events. 

I heard a radio interview the other day with Lucy Walker. She's the director of a new documentary, Bring Your Own Brigade, about the wildfires in California. And she noted that when the first Europeans arrived in California in 1542, they actually sailed into Santa Monica Bay and, noticing the smoke rising from the shoreline from these very cultural burnings, they dubbed the land Bahia De Las Fumas: Bay of Smokes. And this “good fire” use was disrupted by Western settlers, leading to an era of fire suppression that has failed.

[00:15:29] Bill Tripp: You know, the federal and state agencies set out to exclude fire from the landscape very early on in their occupancy of the area. And they, themselves, they recognize that as being flawed. But you know, the foundation of the culture that drove that change was one of extraction and socioeconomic benefit first and foremost.

And so in Karuk culture that's always been the opposite, is that you don't benefit until after you've improved the viability and quality. The fire exclusion era that came with regulation of Indigenous people by federal and state entities ultimately led to wholesale exclusion of fire in the name of protecting timber as a socio-economic resource base for building the nation. And that thought process has prevailed for over a century here in Karuk territory. And, you know, it's turned the environment into something that is not very conducive of surviving very well in the face of climate change. 

[00:16:40] Christina Thompson: Bill explained that the Karuk land management strategies, including this traditional burning practice, are tailored to their territory and tuned into the specific ecosystems and natural patterns of the land.

[00:16:52] Bill Tripp: Sure, that was, it was a patch burning approach, but it connected into a bigger strategy that you had to do it in that manner because different types of vegetation were available to utilize moisture gradients at different times of the year. And not only moisture gradients, but the black that you just created from your prior burn. And so that combined with, you know, lightning fires, as well as igniting fire, at higher elevations for different reasons, even when lightning didn't come fast enough to that place, you know, helped to compartmentalize wildfires into smaller areas. Even, even when you got Northeast wind events. We have ceremonial burning practices that we employed for millennia that were specifically designed to happen at the time of the year when Northeast wind events start to occur. And in a fuel limited system, you need that Northeast wind event to even get the fire to spread.

[00:18:01] Christina Thompson: How does the Tribe intervene and work with the US government and the US Forest Service and firefighters in general now? Is it prevention? Is it education? How do you intervene at this stage? What do you guys do? 

[00:18:13] Bill Tripp: We try to work within the system that was obviously designed to not work for us. It's difficult, you know, I mean, we, we even right up until just earlier this week, the forest service was saying that even though we've worked hard to put people through trainings to get the same federal qualification standard as their employees have, it wasn't good enough. We couldn't lead burns. We couldn't do all this stuff on the land they own. Well, they don't own it, it's, it's public land. They hold it in trust for the public benefit. 

And then there's also a Tribal trust nexus there on that same land. And there are traditional cultural properties, like the resource base that we depend on. That holds with it, uh, private property interests, in a way, but nobody, nobody understands it. And so in working with an agency, or the people, that doesn't understand those things, you're constantly just arguing those points and you're not actually getting much accomplished on the ground. 

[00:19:18] Christina Thompson: The way the US government has approached fire management is fundamentally very different from the Tribe's longstanding practices. As Bill mentioned, liability and risk are huge obstacles in effectively dealing with fire threats, and a lack of recognition for tribal expertise has obviously gotten in the way of collaboration. 

It's hard to see any real silver linings here. But, Bill did share some areas of progress, like partnerships that are co-led by the Tribe, as well as stewardship and inter-agency burn agreements. 

[00:19:49] Bill Tripp: We've been trying to build an endowment fund that we're calling Endowment for Eco-Cultural Revitalization, so we don't necessarily have to be dependent on the financial resources of those systems. And we're hoping that that can help us with the long-term financial sustainability of what we need to do here. But, ultimately, we have to get to the point where those state and federal actors are recognizing our sovereign jurisdiction in the question as well. 

Federal government is sovereign, state governments are sovereign, and tribal governments are sovereign. But when it comes to tribal governments, those other two don't seem to believe it or want it to actually be meaningful. You know, these are, these are hard conversations, but the way fire is impacting people now, the situation with fuels and the way fire interacts with our, our future weather is a wake up call.

The short term is, you know, really has to get to this recognition of our tribal sovereignty and our ability to be effective managers of our Indigenous homelands, you know. I mean, if we don't get started soon, we're not going to have any homes to live in. And, you know, we, we're already seeing it. The Slater Fire burned up in Happy Camp last year, burned up 200 homes and put a good portion of our travel administrative staff in emergency temporary housing. Luckily COVID was happening and we were able to have some funds for the tribe to purchase some tent camp trailers for people to live in because they were homeless. 200 homes is half a town. The odds are it's going to happen to one or more of our local communities before we can get to any kind of scale that’s going to make a meaningful difference. 

[00:21:44] Christina Thompson: The 2020 Slater Fire notoriously ripped through Happy Camp. That's where Karuk Tribal headquarters is located. 

[00:21:51] Bill Tripp: That fire was spotting two miles out. And so when you look at that, in the perspective of Indigenous management practices, we burnt intensively, women and children burnt intensively, within a two mile radius from the village. So it's not too hard to see why. That's, that's the distance that, that people did this. You know, if you've got a two mile radius from where you live, that's void of fuel that can be ignited by an ember, then you don't have a million embers starting thousands of fires simultaneously within that two mile radius, like is what happens in these large events. So we have to get back to that scale and we have to get back to that scale quick. Even that instance of the Slater Fire is an opportunity that burning needs to become a societal norm, not something that was decided in Sacramento or Vallejo.

[00:22:52] Christina Thompson: Or DC. 

[00:22:53] Bill Tripp: Yeah. 

[00:22:54] Christina Thompson: This situation seems to call for that climate justice approach that Raj talked about in the previous episode. He explained that the people that have been most impacted by climate change likely have the solutions that would work best in their area. This is clearly the case when it comes to wildfires.

Bill told me about some of the Tribe's efforts to revitalize their cultural burning practices. 

[00:23:14] Bill Tripp: You know, we've got the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network where we have a bunch of partners working at local, regional, and national scales on these issues with a focus on Indigenous fire management practice. You know, we've developed a healthy country plan for the Karuk, Yurok, and Hoopa people. Strategy number one is to establish family-based cultural burning activities happening in each tribal territory. 

[00:23:41] Christina Thompson: How do you personally do what you do and keep doing what you do? 

[00:23:45] Bill Tripp: It's tough, you know. I find myself in a constant state of conflict in between these two worlds that I live in. And, you know, I've got to the point of mental, emotional, physical breakdown, many times in the past 20, 28 years. I was a tribal government representative for three large wildfire incidents that were going on simultaneously and trying to protect all of our sacred places from damage when ‘dozers were going everywhere. And I had a severe stress reaction that borderlined on PTSD. And I almost never came back out of that. It's, it's hard. 

Um, I'm kind of coming out of one of those moments again, right now. This last year has been one of the most stressful of, of my life. You know, I was going full bore since COVID started, whether it was COVID emergency response or multiple large wildfire events or people resigning or having to leave for one reason or another and having to redistribute loads or take it on yourself.

[00:24:53] Christina Thompson: It's overwhelming. The things you're saying, I mean, I feel like you're on literally the frontline of this in a very vulnerable position. And I can't stress enough how much I appreciate the work that you do and how important it is. 

How can we be stewards of your mission? Like, specifically, like me, for example, or somebody listening to this, what is something that we could specifically do to help?

[00:25:18] Bill Tripp: I believe firmly that it's rebuilding an intimate connection with your surrounding environment. That is the only thing that can inform you in what that place needs. Every, every place is going to be different. Each of these places have an Indigenous people. Each of these Indigenous peoples are still there and they have knowledge holders and there are people that are likely, still very marginalized and, you know, helping to turn that around is what people can do, in my mind. 

Helping to find ways to financially support some anonymity and independence in being able to achieve these goals is something that we're always looking for support for. You know, we're trying to build that endowment fund, but the endowment building effort has been slow. People like to invest in the here and now, not the future. But that doesn't always help progress things in perpetuity and place, which is what we need to do. Because you can get to the point to where your community is going to survive a fire during a Northeast wind event, but if you aren't maintaining that in perpetuity, then you're just kicking the can down the road.

[00:26:43] Christina Thompson: To help preserve traditional Karuk ecological knowledge and support future generations of Indigenous leaders, you can donate to the endowment fund. You'll find a link to the fund in our show notes, along with more information about the Karuk tribe and their eco-cultural revitalization efforts. 

A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Kelly Drake and Will Watts. The music you heard is by Aaron Levison.