Yesterday, I drove Kate up to Oroville so she could attend camp at Okizu, which is located north of the dam in Berry Creek.
A quick word about Okizu, for you new readers or folks who don't know us well. Okizu is a camp for children with cancer and their immediate families. We started attending family camp after Adam was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age 2, in 2003. When the kids turned eight, they each started spending a week up there in the summer time, Adam at 'Oncology' camp and Kate at 'Sibs' camp. We also still attend a family weekend camp every year.
All of this is completely free for us; it is a wonderful service that allows Adam to connect with other kids who have been through what he has been through, and Kate to spend some time reflecting on what it's like to be the sibling of a child with a life-threatening disease. As a family, each year we get a long weekend to remember that time when he was young (Adam had chemo for three and a half years), and offer support to parents who are new to the diagnosis. We also have the chance to honor those who have lost their lives and mourn with their families.
Okizu is located in a beautiful valley, under Bald Rock, in Berry Creek. Berry Creek hosts a Grange Hall and a church, but not much else, and the camp property is vast and encompasses a ropes course, a zip line, two lakes (one for swimming and boating, and one for fishing), an archery course, an arts and crafts pavilion, a dining lodge with a games basement, a huge hill and meadow for frisbee golf, a doctors cottage (there is always a doctor and nurse on premises, many of the children who come are still undergoing treatment), and four large sections of cabins and bathrooms for the campers. It's a wonderful place, and our kids often talk about Okizu being like their second home. They look forward to their time there every summer, and expect to serve as counselors when they age out of the camper program.
Anyway, there is a bus that takes kids there, but instead I drive the kids up, as I enjoy the trip. I like connecting with the counselors and directors, taking in the gorgeous scenery near camp, soaking in the farmland north of Marysville, and perhaps most of all, measuring Lake Oroville with a critical eye each year. The fullness of the dam reflects the health of our water supply here in Northern CA. Many, many people get their drinking water from Lake Oroville, which is a man-made basin and dam. It flows out to the Feather River, which is the principal tributary of the Sacramento River, which flows all the way down into our delta which meets our San Francisco Bay up near the city of Antioch. It's a huge and immensely important watershed.
As you probably know, we had so much rain last winter, such epic amounts, that the dam's spillway was engaged, which had not been tested since the dam was built 50 years ago. The spillway eventually crumbled and failed, which caused the experts to activate an emergency spillway, which also turned out to be inadequate. Many thousands of people living in Oroville were evacuated, under threat of a breach. It was a very tense time for that community, and for all of us in Northern CA watching helplessly. The rain, which we so desperately needed, after having been in severe drought for five years, was now so abundant that it was causing a different kind of crisis.
Eventually, the rain ceased, folks were able to go back home, and repairs ensued immediately on the dam, as everyone involved was concerned about the eventual snowmelt in the Sierra (which is underway now, though there were still skiers at Squaw Valley on July 4; Tioga Pass in Yosemite was just recently opened for thru-traffic; we got a LOT of snow). Oroville, a town perhaps more economically downtrodden than many in CA, breathed a sigh of relief. The city relies on vacation visitors to the lake for much of its income.
So it was with sadness that we heard the news that the Wall Fire was burning across vast acreage near Oroville. More folks had been evacuated. Our hearts went out to the people of Oroville - hadn't they had enough to deal with this year already? The night before Kate was to go to camp, we were told that it would likely be cancelled: The camp itself was not in any danger, but the road leading up the mountain had been closed to allow the fire fighters and trucks clear access to the fire.
We got a call later that night that camp was on! The director had convinced the CHP to let campers through and up to camp. Kate was relieved, I was relieved. We left Monday morning early and had a non-eventful drive up. The sky above Yuba City was quite hazy with smoke, and we could smell it, but we could not see the fire. Oroville looked like business as usual. But we were stopped on the road leading up to the dam and told to turn back. I explained where we were headed, and that we were told we could go through, but the officer made us turn around. After a few calls to the camp office, we tried again, where the same officer apologized and let us go through.
So Kate's and several hundred other kids' week at camp was saved. I stopped and ate my sandwich on the way back by the lake, where I took these pictures. The lake does look fuller than it has in many years, but it was all the way up to the underside of this bridge, in February:
It's hard to imagine it.
So I got to thinking a lot about our winter, and how everyone expected (or at least us laypeople) that our wildfire situation would be much less this summer. But the truth is, we have more fires burning earlier in the season than we have ever had. How can this be, when the earth had so much saturation just a few months ago?
I found this tidbit in the LA Times: "Didn’t our recent heavy winter rains make trees and brush less flammable? Yes, up to a point. Regardless of rainfall, however, the fire hazard in a specific region is defined by its fire history and the effect it has had on the landscape. That’s because fires preferentially burn old chaparral and conifers. Hence, the oldest stands of trees are always the next in line to burn."
Interesting! I'm no expert, but here's what I think another important culprit is: All that rain allowed a LOT of vegetation to grow. We hadn't had that much growth in years. And while it remained green as long as the rains continued, as soon as they stopped, they dried up like they always do. That left HUGE stands of brown vegetation everywhere. This is just simply tinder.
So I think we're in for a very bad fire season indeed.
It doesn't help much that folks have been told that 'the drought is over.' Just the other night, Tom and I were taking a walk up a nearby street, when we noticed sprinklers in a yard leaking so badly that it was causing a river of runoff, just wasted water running down the street. As we were discussing that we should let the homeowners know they had a leak, or a problem, we heard them on their front porch saying hello. When we pointed out that something was amiss, the owner said, "oh, we know. It always does that. I can't control it."
Tom and I just walked away, and that interchange kept us thinking hard for another mile or so. Folks can't possibly still be ignorant of the importance of saving water in our desert climate. Yes, we're told all the time that the drought is over, does that make people feel safe enough to waste wantonly? Did this gentleman have a well, like many folks in our neighborhood, and therefore since he wasn't paying for the waste, it wasn't a concern? All the houses on our street with wells had them dry up last summer, which had never happened before. The lack of ground water affects all of us. Owning a well does not give anyone a 'pass' from conserving.
Whether or not this water came from a well, we could only come to one conclusion, and that is that the homeowner was willfully wasting water and what's more, couldn't be concerned to correct it. And this, we find incredible and frankly reprehensible.
Just to add insult to injury, the yard in question had nothing in the way of an ecosystem. There was no food garden, no wildlife garden, not even a useless green lawn. This yard had a few stunted bushes and swathes of bare dirt. What was there to nurture with these leaky overhead sprinklers???
The lack of water is not a problem that will ever go away here. It is something that we all have to be aware of, and we have to work together to prevent its loss. How much of our water supply is going to be used this year for fighting wildfires and protecting homes? How much of our water supply needs to go to growing the nation's food? What are we going to spend our water on? Just because we had a great winter does not mean we can be wasteful now. Or ever. Oroville is evidence of that.