How the Fires Are Linked to Climate Chaos, Soil Health & Food Choices

In late 2017, Northern Californians suffered a firestorm in eight counties simultaneously, followed by the devastating Thomas Fire (now the largest in state history) in Southern California. Today, around 1.1 million wildfires are once again burning across California, destroying homes and habitats. Three of these fires have now surpassed the 2017 fires as being the largest fires in state history.

For many of us, the 2017 fires provoked a déjà vu feeling of “apocalypse now.” There were two dozen fatalities, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, thousands of homes and family possessions were turned into grey debris, massive plumes of severely unhealthy smoke and soot wafted in the air for weeks, and a highly toxic soup of ash and grime flowed into rivers and then the ocean.

Many people close to me lost everything. Yet, through this time of need, there has been a heartening outpouring of community goodwill to help friends and strangers alike.

As we rebuild and move forward, a new question is emerging. Will Californians begin to understand the connection between climate chaos — with its ongoing drought, searing temperatures and vulnerability to fires — and industrial agriculture — the world’s leading cause of climate change?

Over the centuries, agriculture has caused the loss and degradation of fertile soil leading to the downfall of civilizations worldwide. Modern industrial agriculture is doing it even faster. Today’s food system is based on copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and the confinement of cows, chickens, and pigs. Agriculture is a major contributor to the 75% drop in winged insect populations. The massive footprint of this carbon-centric system is accelerating climate change and the deadly weather anomalies that follow as a consequence.

The Solution Under Our Feet

There is a climate solution literally under our feet, based on healthy soils and on pastures that yield better-tasting and more nutritious foods while conserving water and sequestering carbon. A new movement called regenerative agriculture seeks food grown in a manner that more closely mimics nature.

Regenerative agriculture restores and maintains natural systems, like water and carbon cycles, to enable the land to continue to produce food in a manner that both moderates the climate and is beneficial for people’s nutrition and the long-term health of the planet. Plants and soil organisms literally pull carbon from the atmosphere and build it into healthy soil.

Our generation has the responsibility to return this legacy load of carbon back to our forests, farm fields and grass land. If we fail to take heed then our climate and oceans are in peril from excess carbon.

Will we in California and elsewhere read the smoke signals and start to change our food purchases to support the farmers and ranchers who are building healthy soils in this way? Putting it simply, we all vote three times a day with our forks.

Millennial moms, generally distrustful of the industrial food system, are now leading the way, making wise choices from pasture-raised meat and dairy products to leading-edge organic vegan options.

A few years ago, The New York Times published a positive opinion piece on the role of soils and climate, “Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet.”

Image: John Roulac

To learn more, you might check out this article I wrote on the topic three years ago.

Also, Josh Tickell’s new book Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Save Our World is getting rave reviews.

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has described the book as, “A fascinating, easy-to-follow blueprint for how eating in ways that nourish and regenerate the soil can not only help reverse global warming but also bring greater vitality to our lives.” Deepak Chopra, MD, has said, “Kiss the Ground gives us the most practical solution to reversing climate change… A must-read for anyone committed to healing our bodies and our Earth.”

Climate Chaos

One scary factor of the Thomas Fire, which has burned more than 280,000 acres and is still burning as I write, is that it happened during the month of December. The California fire season has previously ended in early November.

Climate scientists tell us we’re just at the start of a “new normal” as we experience ever-more-intense dry and hot weather, as well as massive rainfall deluges such as we saw in Houston, Texas, in the fall of 2017.

We can expect even more severe drought and fires if we continue to treat Spaceship Earth like a landfill instead of as a natural wonder deserving of our respect, love, and care.

California Dreamin’

Harking back to the lyrics of the 1965 The Mamas & The Papas song, California Dreamin’, we need a new dream of how to live on Planet Earth in ways that restore life rather than destroying it. As a fourth generation Californian, I know that our state has the potential to dream and to lead in creative problem solving. Our state has birthed Earth-friendly solutions such as organic foods, wind farms, natural building, and solar energy. Before we extinguish the last embers of the raging inferno that has burned much of our state, let us rethink how we live. An article in Civil Eats, Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future explores how in the wake of California wildfire’s mass destruction, ecologists see radical hope in regeneration. An article in Civil Eats, Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future explores how in the wake of California wildfire’s mass destruction, ecologists see radical hope in regeneration.

California has many groups focused on regenerative agriculture, including:

Carbon Underground

Center for Regenerative Agriculture


Kiss the Ground

Marin Carbon Project

Soil Not Oil Coalition

Fire Proofing California’s Forests?

California and much of the west’s forest lands are in poor shape due to both tree die-off, including the coastal tan oaks and overly crowded dense forests of small thin trees caused from invasive, large scale clear-cutting. They are like a match ready to combust. California will need to invest up to 15 billion dollars in forest management (selective thinning and controlled burns while creating jobs) to prevent many of the catastrophic fires in California.

Saving The West is a project to support the development of a renewable wood products economy, creating a regenerative economic engine for thousands of people in historically depressed areas. In a virtuous cycle, good environmental stewardship becomes good economic development.

Blue Forest Conservation and their Forest Resiliency Bond also use the same principles to help fund healthy forest ecosystem restoration

For example, if CalPERS, with $257 Billion under asset management, invested 5% of their assets, we could create a thriving forest that would slow fire and create many jobs.

Natural Buildings

The December 9th 2017 Guardian article on the Ojai fires discussed the role of building structures “… wasted no time worrying about the fires of the future and the likely effects of global warming on the sensitive environment of coastal California. Environmentalists like White and Jones pointed to structures that survived the fire — including some experimental modified adobe structures in the hills above Ojai — and said California would have to rethink its building codes and approved materials.”

Connor Jones stands outside a structure on his Ojai farm. Photograph: Andrew Gumbel for the Guardian

It should be noted that most home construction today uses highly flammable glass and plastic insulation, which helps intensify the heat of fires whereas natural building materials do the opposite. Sadly the makers of these highly toxic and carbon-centric construction materials have lobbied public officials into passing state and local laws which favor their materials and restrict the use of natural earth-friendly, carbon-neutral and fire-resistant options.

Growing Regenerative Food

Consider these thoughts from an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee by Rich Collins, a California fruit farmer and board chairman of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

“In January and February, no less than 125 million gallons of rain fell upon my 200-acre farm, located off Highway 80 between Dixon and Davis.

Our soil, blanketed with an annual winter cover crop of mixed grass and legumes, absorbed all of those 24 inches of rain. Not one single gallon left our property.

Where did all that water go? Some was used by the cover crop and a small amount evaporated. But most sank down to be stored in the soil and to recharge groundwater while placing atmospheric carbon where it really belongs: underneath our feet.”

On conventionally managed fields nearby, copious and disheartening amounts of rainwater ran off, causing some localized flooding. But most of it made its way out to the Delta, then the bay and beyond. It was an opportunity lost.”

California is a global leader on climate change. Brown and legislative leaders miss no opportunity to remind the world of our model. The state has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target and many climate change programs to achieve those goals.

We must encourage growers to enhance water use efficiency, improve their soil management, and reduce winter runoff to recharge groundwater, while placing atmospheric carbon where it really belongs: underneath our feet.”

As a fellow Californian and crew member of Spaceship Earth, I agree 100% with Rich’s words. And while the good news is that more folks are paying attention, the hard reality is that time is running short.

Here’s to walking on more carbon as we move forward!

This article originally appeared on Medium. An edited version appears here.