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Close to Home: Amid personal loss in fire, climate advocate gets more engaged

Mobile homes in the Journey's End park in Santa Rosa burned in the Tubbs fire. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

BRUCE HAGEN,

Joy Lonnes’ struggle to limit the impact of climate change just got personal in a big way: Her home in Journey’s End was destroyed in the Santa Rosa fire.

“When I went to bed at 10 o’clock, I already could smell smoke,” she said. She woke up two or three times because her wind chimes were banging around in front of her mobile home. At the time, she thought, “There’s a wildfire somewhere, but it’s not going to affect me. I live in the city.”

Her final wake-up call came at 2 a.m. The historic Fountain Grove Round Barn had erupted into flames, a scant 1,000 feet upwind. The hurricane-force Diablo winds were raining embers down on her home. Joy launched into action.

“I have a disabled daughter. I thought, ‘It’s not just me. I’ve got to get Evie out of here.’ ” By then, the power was out. She evacuated her daughter and their dog in darkness. “I was totally calm because by that time, I was in action,” she remembers. “I was moving forward, and I knew what I had to do.”

Joy’s story mirrors the story of her climate advocacy. She knew wildfires were a natural part of life in Northern California. But she also understood the frightening connection between a destabilized climate and extraordinary weather events, which is raising the stakes in every “natural” disaster.

The west experienced a particularly wet winter and spring, but the summer brought record-breaking heat. “These heat waves have dried things out enough to promote really large fires,” said Park Williams, a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Santa Rosa’s perfect storm conditions invited a wildfire in the woodland hills to surge into the city, eventually leaping an six-lane freeway to demolish hundreds more homes.

Unable to ignore these growing dangers, Lonnes took action. In 2012, she started the Santa Rosa Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a relatively young and fast-growing climate education and advocacy group. Lonnes liked its nonpartisan approach, based on building respectful relationships with members of Congress and community leaders. She also appreciated the campaign’s practical climate solution: placing a nationwide price on carbon and returning the revenue to households. In five years, she helped the chapter grow from a few members to more than 400.

Lonnes believes in the power of community. That community came to her rescue, with places to stay and home-cooked meals, just as it did for the people who once lived in the 6,700 homes destroyed by the fires. “What I really learned is how important friendships and relationships are and how supportive people are willing to be in a crisis,” she said.

There were no news reports of anyone denied help because of their citizenship status or who they voted for last November. Lonnes said she began to wonder, “What if we started treating our political adversaries like this, with the same understanding and compassion we show people affected by floods and fires?” In fact, she thought, why stop there? What if, instead of just recovering from climate-related disasters, we took steps to prevent further climate change?

Those are the values and ideas Lonnes has leaned on in Citizens’ Climate Lobby for years. Now, the fire has only tempered her resolve, she said. “This personal tragedy for me is going to mean something bigger than losing my furniture and my personal belongings,” she said. “It makes climate change so up close and personal for me that I am now on a crusade.”

Lonnes is leaving Santa Rosa and the ashes of her personal belongings. She and Evie are moving back to their original home in Virginia. When it comes to fighting climate change, Lonnes says, “Before, I was just going through the motions — but now, I’m on fire.”

Bruce Hagen is a group leader for the Santa Rosa chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.