California Wildfire Travel Guide

After I did my blog post on travelling to Yosemite in July, I felt it was critical to do a travel guide on California during wildfire season. I left out some stories in my post about the Mariposa fire and I will be sharing them here. In the last five years, wildfire season has been starting in California as early as May and going as late as November. The worst time is generally June-August and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better.

And look, I don’t care what you think the reasons for the wildfires are. If you are travelling to California during the times I mentioned, you HAVE to contingency plans for wildfires! It’s gone from California Dreaming to California Burning and it’s important to respect that.

Things to Pack:

  • Water cooler
  • Lots of water bottles
  • N95 masks
  • Moisturizing eye drops
  • Some dishtowels or other towels
  • A working cell phone and its charger

Here’s the why behind each of these. You are going to become sweaty, dehydrated and congested if you are anywhere close to a wildfire. If your accommodation offers free ice (I know Motel 6 does), double what you would normally need before you start travelling for the day. If you need to buy ice, follow the same rule. Take advantage of any way to prolong the ice melt. Fill up all your water bottles before you start your day as well. Lots of liquid might not completely stop you from feeling sweaty, dehydrated or congested, but it takes the edge off. Additionally, dip the small towels in the water to keep your face cool and if you want to breathe through them. Keep your eyes hydrated with eyedrops too!

Pack some N95 masks with you before you leave and make sure you know how to fit them properly. I can’t say how close you have to be to a wildfire to wear them. California has had wildfires a few hundred miles away from the Bay Area, but I still had to wear an N95. Extinguishing a wildfire releases a lot of smoke, and smoke travels wherever the wind goes. Or not. Another thing that’s important is smoke is not just from the trees burning. More chemicals are being released with properties burning. Therefore, it’s critical to protect your lungs. This bears repeating: You need a working, charged cell phone to stay on top of real-time updates if you are near a danger zone.

I will keep referring to this section throughout the post.

Driving Hacks:

Before you start driving, put your ice and water bottles in the coolest place in the cabin. Do NOT put them in the trunk! You’re going to need them! Additionally, check your cell phone for updates on road closures. If you run into firefighters who are off duty, ask them for any updates too. They don’t bite and they can help you plan for redirecting your route.

If you are driving in a smoky area, you have to turn your air-conditioning off. That’s easier said than done because, in California, anything that ends in “Valley” (Central Valley, Yosemite Valley) is going to have high temperatures. However, if you don’t turn your AC off, you will get smoke in the car and you can’t open your windows either to let the smoke out. The cabin can become a deathtrap quickly. If you have to turn the AC off, use the water and ice by any means necessary to stay cool.

If you are the driver, keep your eyes hydrated (just pull over before you put eyedrops in lol). I have had times when my eyes have run so much from the smoke, that it’s hard to see properly. Additionally, if smoke is obscuring your visibility, drive slower and do what you would do if you were driving at night in an unfamiliar area. Follow any driving directions from emergency services.

Should I Change My Travel Plans?:

Here’s why I don’t have a straight answer to this question. Even if you are planning on rerouting your trip to get away from the worst of the fire, you might still be affected by the smoke. In November 2018, the Camp Fire happened in Paradise California and there was another fire in Southern California at the same time. Since my university cancelled classes due to the Air Quality Index (AQI) being over 180, we thought of renting a car and driving to where the air quality was better. When we looked carefully, we realized that there was no point because we would have to drive hundreds of miles to get someplace with a better AQI.

Additionally, roads are highly likely to be clogged with people driving to less dangerous areas. Emergency services will redirect traffic to prioritize easy access to evacuees. I remember when the Camp Fire happened and I took Lyft home from university. At the best of times, it only took half an hour to drive from home to my university. This time, it took an hour and a half.

My answer to this question would be to research your options and check the AQI and traffic conditions along any routes you might use.

PLEASE DON’T DO THIS!!:

I’m going to whip a dead horse here. PLEASE DO NOT BE CARELESS WITH FLAMMABLE OBJECTS!!! Our terrain has become more sensitive to wildfires due to extreme drought for over a decade, and 70+ years of debris piling up from being too careful about fighting fires! Even though controlled burning is taking place in some places (I saw it outside Yosemite when I went there in December), the terrain might become too sensitive to fires.

If you are camping, or if you have flammable objects with you, follow local instructions. Signs in areas are changed daily to indicate wildfire risk. If you aren’t sure about using flammable objects in a certain area, ask a park ranger, or a local firefighter for advice. Recommendations change on a daily basis during fire season, so if you can use flammable objects one day, it doesn’t mean you can use them another day. A few years ago, we went camping in Northern California. We made sure we knew the campground fire rules and extinguished it properly before sleeping.

You can be fined for improper use of fire. One of the wildfires in 2020 was due to using explosives at a gender reveal party. The people responsible got one heck of a hefty fine! You can guarantee they will be paying it off for the rest of their lives!

Keep in Mind What It’s Really Like for Californians:

Here are some facts about wildfires in California. It doesn’t matter whether you are living in a city or the country, in a poor area or a rich area. We have all been affected by wildfires in one way or another. The first time Napa Valley had a wildfire, some people didn’t donate for wildfire relief because it’s a rich area. That shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Napa was affected by a natural disaster. Period. I saw both Mariposa and Paradise several months after the fires happened. It was nice to see Mariposa doing well. They get a lot of tourists going to Yosemite to boost their economy. Paradise looked like it had a long way to go to recover. Fire insurance doesn’t even begin to cover the damage from wildfires. Economics plays a big role and fires are already starting to affect housing prices in California.

I don’t know a single Californian who doesn’t hate Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for having equipment failures causing sparks in vulnerable areas. One time, only a few sparks were needed to make an area go up like an oil spill fire! PG&E has been blatantly responsible for too many fires that could have been prevented! Lawsuits are still happening, but PG&E is using loopholes to avoid accountability.

Local Responses vs State Responses:

Here’s what I saw in Merced during the Mariposa fire was happening. The welcome sign outside our motel said evacuees with pets were allowed to stay. That warmed my heart! Before we turned back on Highway 140, we saw so many signs thanking the firefighters. On our last night in Merced, we were eating at the Black Bear Diner and an entire unit of the California Fire Department was eating there. No one cared that service was slower that night.

I look back on that and think how local responses to these wildfires are so much better than the state government. The state’s response to extreme wildfires can be summed up in seven letters: fuck all! Experts knew years ago that the drought was increasing wildfire risk, but the state had no preparations in place for annual once-in-a-lifetime wildfires that said experts were saying would happen!

In 2020, I saw the worst fire of all. People ask me if it’s true that the sky turned red. That answer is a resounding YES! I am so pissed off with the state government being stuck in the definition of insanity when it came to wildfire responses. I was hoping the red sky would be the California equivalent of The Great Stink of London, and the state would finally change things. Lately, I have heard of changes such as banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030 and California running for an hour on 100% renewable energy. I’m still skeptical. It doesn’t seem urgent enough. No, we can’t control the entire increase in global temperature that has led to drought and wildfires. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part to decrease it though.

Be Respectful:

I would see evacuees in the motel lobby when I went down to get ice. They would be talking about when they might be able to go home, or what the damage was. One time, I saw a dog that would have rushed me if there wasn’t a glass door separating me and it. I know a lot of the dogs evacuated were probably farm dogs, and they have different manners than city dogs. Normally, I would pet any dog I see and talk to the owners, but this time I decided not to do so.

Additionally, I would say hi to people around the motel. I had a rule that if they didn’t say hi back to me, I wouldn’t take it personally. I didn’t know what they have been through but I hoped a kind “Hello” would make them feel a little better. Another rule I had was if I got in a conversation with an evacuee, I wouldn’t complain about the state’s response to the fire unless they wanted to as well. If they were a climate change denier, I would let it slide because it was time for kindness, not disagreement. I was raised to be Green before it was cool. I can get passionate about it. However, there are times when I won’t argue with people about it and this is one of them.

Use your own good judgement when talking to Californians about wildfires. Just don’t come off as arrogant or uninformed. It’s a sensitive topic, so be just as sensitive.

The Most Important Thing:

I take it you noticed that sometimes I don’t give you definite answers, so I tell you what I know. How you deal with natural disasters depends on your ability to be adaptable. You have to take whatever information you currently have and make decisions accordingly. Charles Darwin said that the most adaptable animals and people survive and he’s on point when it comes to disasters! We can be even more adaptable in this age of technology because we have a mini-computer in our pockets and can get real-time updates in emergencies.

I will say this about cell phones though. Figure out the most trusted apps and websites and use them in a wildfire situation. It can mean the difference between life and death. Usually, I would say local government sources of a wildfire zone are the most accurate. They have a vested interest in keeping their community safe. I have seen non-local websites that gave me the wrong AQI for my area! I didn’t panic though. It’s incredibly easy to find another site.

So that’s it for my California Wildfire Travel Guide. Feel free to ask any questions or leave any comments!

What I’m Doing While I Wait to Move

Yes, I have chores to do to prepare to move. However, this time, I have had a lot more free time than I did before. Maybe thatโ€™s due to the pandemic, but also I think itโ€™s down to experience. I love that though! That means I get to do more Self Care because this pandemic is mentally draining.

I have been on lockdown for almost SIX months now and Iโ€™m reaching the point that I donโ€™t want to have to stay at home so other people can be reckless about their safety. This isnโ€™t just me complaining that life is unfair. This situation really IS unfair because people being reckless means the good ones have to lock down for even longer. I have to remind myself that if I donโ€™t get COVID-19, it will all be worth it. I think my previous post Pain, Fire and Other Movingย Upheavals summed it up pretty well. Also, since my last post, it is still smoky from the fires. Iโ€™m still safe though, thankfully. I got another couple photos of the sunset from last night, and the smoke still gives it a certain redness.

Another sunset during fire season

Lifeโ€™s not all bad though. I have found some fun things to do, like games. Cards Against Humanity has been the most cathartic game during the pandemic because sometimes, I have been downright frustrated with the world! I have been playing some other games online, and they are Minesweeper, Mahjong, and Scrabble Go!

I have been on and off with reading right now because my books are packed. However, I will always love the feminist poetry of Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur, and I hope to take their books with me. I love that they write about immigration as part of their poetry. Women are affected by immigration in a different way than men. I will do a post about their work sometime and what it means to me.

Iโ€™m continuing to watch movies with French subtitles where possible to brush up on my French as well. I am also learning the differences between French French and Canadian French. Watch this space for a post about French dialects, because itโ€™s not the first time I have had to contend with them! I’ll do another post about English English, American English, and Canadian English sometime soon too.

The best thing of all is I can pursue the things I have wanted to do. I have been wanting to write a book based on my life with immigration and growing up in different cultures. Now, I can start doing that. The pandemic has shown me that I really love writing and I want to pursue it wholeheartedly. I also want to turn my passions into my profession and have the money and freedom to be able to pursue my life goals and deal with any problems that arise. The Dalai Lama once said, โ€œMan surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.โ€ He has many great quotes, but this one resonates the most with me.

Additionally, certain things depress me about the world. For instance, I donโ€™t want to work someplace I have a moral issue with. I have become more of a conscious buyer lately. I love to support businesses that have certain values I believe in. Whether they are green, black-owned, sustainable, feminist, LGBTQIA+, to name but a few, I love knowing that my money is going someplace with shared values. Also, as a woman myself, I am aware of the struggles women face in the workplace, mainly because I have experienced a lot of these myself. The idea of getting a job and facing these issues again feels like a drain of my resources. Donโ€™t get me wrong, I know I will need to get a job at some point until I can finally be my own boss, but I intend to work part-time so I can put the time and effort into my own enterprise. Writing my book is a part of growing my own enterprise. I donโ€™t want to give away too much about the rest of it, but watch this space!

Since I am looking to do my own enterprise someday, I wanted to learn more about leadership, particularly for women. So, while I am waiting to move, I am doing a course called Womenโ€™s Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change. Itโ€™s very informative and gives me a lot of hope. Women are typically subjected to a lot of double standards in this world, thanks to bias, both conscious and unconscious. This course has shown me there are ways around these double standards, and how you can make things work in your favor. Thereโ€™s a long way to go to break the glass ceiling, particularly for women of different ethnic and racial groups. To all the women fighting these injustices, particularly those from different backgrounds, keep it up! I believe in all of you! A rising tide floats all boats and someday, I believe women will rule the world!

Just wanted to shout out to all my supporters and followers at this time! You are the people who make me feel like being my own boss someday is not only possible, but it will be worth it! Love you guys and big hugs!

I make a point of finding joy and/or hope in the most random things. Last weekend, I made a lemon chiffon cake with my Mum. I made some raspberry jam to go in the middle. The lemons and raspberries came from my Mumโ€™s garden and they were to die for! My Mum decorated the top with rosemary flowers and our remaining raspberries.

Lemon Chiffon Cake with raspberry jam and Rosemary Flowers

When I look back on this time, I think what I will value most is my burst in curiosity. I have been exploring my TCK identity a lot more with writing for this blog, my column, and starting a book. Curiosity leads to creativity and Iโ€™m glad to see where that has taken me. Additionally, I need to be patient for moving because I really canโ€™t wait to leave! I want to stay long enough so I can vote. Hopefully, it will be enough to change who is running the country!ย 

Let me make it clear though. I donโ€™t believe in Biden or Harris. I think there could have been a better Democratic candidate. Itโ€™s hard to believe in the Democrats when they keep running the same old same old middle of the road candidates that kiss up to big businesses and screw the population. Okay, rant over! I just hope that there will be more public pressure to make lasting changes to the US. I especially hope more and more people pay attention to the Black Lives Matter movement!

How has the pandemic changed life for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Pain, Fire and Other Moving Upheavals

When youโ€™re moving overseas, there are going to be massive changes to your plans. That is inevitable. Something that seemed a solid plan one day will disappear by the next. Even upsets in your life can seem like a bigger deal when youโ€™re moving overseas.

These days, with COVID-19, plans are even more unpredictable. I check border updates every day to see if there is a way that my Mom and I can enter Canada. I have chronic pain issues and I got treatment by a Canadian healthcare provider that worked better than anything I have ever had in the US. One thing I am hoping for is if I can get into Canada to get treatment for my pain. I had to stop getting treatment because of COVID-19, so I have struggled with pain through the lockdown. I manage it on my own as best as I can, but I am going to need to resume treatment soon. I might have found a way to get in for healthcare reasons though. I might have to give up my IEC visa and find another way to get a work permit once Iโ€™m inside Canada.

Thanks to the pandemic, I hear companies arenโ€™t hiring people from overseas. That means I have to establish residence first and then find a job. I do have financial worries because of this, and I am thinking about starting my own sort of enterprise and exploring my options for that. Whether I can do it in Canada before I get permanent residence is another matter. COVID-19 has made me think about what I want to do with my life and where I want to be financially.

Wildfire season has started in California, and itโ€™s freakishly early compared to other years! I couldnโ€™t believe it a few days ago, when I found out there are a lot of fires going on nearby. I havenโ€™t needed to evacuate, but the fires are closer to where I live than they were in previous years. In 2018, the Camp Fire in November gave me ten days off school because the Air Quality Index was ridiculously high. Last year, classes were cancelled for a couple days in October because of a potential fire risk.

Sunrise and sunset are different when there is a fire. Itโ€™s almost eerie! I took some photos of a sunset when the smoke was really bad. Itโ€™s getting better in my area now, though. Itโ€™s scary to think wildfires are happening during a global pandemic too, especially since prisoners are recruited to fight fires, but the prisons have been hit with COVID-19. The whole system is fucked frankly!

Sunset on August 20, 2020 in SF Bay Area, East Bay
Sunset and Evening Star are one clear call for thee (Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson)

I thought when I left for Canada, I would only be taking the things I really need. I will be coming back later to move things up in a van. Now, I am thinking, โ€œWhat can I not bear to lose if there is a fire?โ€ I am going to take the things that are valuable to me that I have collected on my travels. Also, people have given me meaningful gifts from their countries and travels over the years. I collect things from foreign countries and I would be devastated if they got destroyed by a fire.

We have just started our sixth month on lockdown in the US. I feel scared to go out sometimes because cases keep going up even though indoor activities are not allowed. I have been good and doing my part, and it feels really unfair that I still have to stay home while other people are being reckless. Mental health is my number one priority at least. I have been doing a lot of self-care, like what I mention in my Self Care post. I think Michael Rappaport said it best in his PSA to wear your mask.

I admit, it has been nice finding some content that makes fun of anti-maskers, or even just content that creatively reminds you to do your part. Here are some of my favorites:

Signs You’re a “Karen”

Everybody Must Stay Home – Bob Dylan Coronavirus Parody

Sarah Cooper is a gem that has emerged during the pandemic. Someone once said she doesnโ€™t just mimic Trump. She exposes him. I think sheโ€™s been doing people in the US a service, especially those who are good and staying home.

I also love the John Oliver shows. My favorite is still the first one he did on COVID-19 when he talked about this handwashing informational video from Vietnam that featured a dance routine that went viral all over the world. Itโ€™s funny to talk about something going viral during the time of a global pandemic.

Even so, I find it hard to enjoy these things sometimes and keep up my motivation to stay on lockdown. Whenever someone in my family comes home from a high-risk area, we have to do a 2319 from Monsters Inc. Now, that joke is getting old unfortunately.

My Mom and I say every day how we canโ€™t wait to leave the US. Sometimes, we get news that makes me say, โ€œOh no! Weโ€™ll never get there!โ€ I have to remember though that I have a false sense of timing about moving. It has always been that I would be in a country a few months after my Dad got a job overseas. We had the company help us with the paperwork and stuff, but now that I have to do it on my own, it takes longer. I have to remind myself that where thereโ€™s a will, thereโ€™s a way and just keep going until I reach my goal.

How have you all been handling the coronavirus situation? Hope you are all hanging in there and staying healthy! Watch this space for more updates!