In the worlds young Charlie McBride has created in Minecraft, forest fires aren’t that scary, their smoke has no actual smell and pandemics are only possible through “mods,” simple hacks of the popular online game.
In fact, in the five years since the North Bay Wildfires, these virtual environments of 3D world-building have offered Charlie a respite from half a lifetime of real-world climate chaos.
A simple game setting can control the most dangerous characteristic of wildfire.
“We usually, in settings, turned off ‘Fire Spreads,’” Charlie said. “So, if we put down a campfire, it wouldn't spread, because we didn't want our houses to burn — sometimes we had, like, fireplaces and then we would come back from an adventure and our entire house would be burned.”
Charlie , now 10, was one of 6,336 public school kids in Sonoma County who were enrolled in kindergarten in the fall of 2017. Back then, the dense smoke of the Tubbs Fire forced Charlie and their family to evacuate from their home in downtown Santa Rosa.
Charlie’s mother, Noelle Johnson, recalls the air being too toxic to breathe, and their school was closed for weeks. Charlie’s optimism was depicted in pictures of forest animals surviving the fire, as well as the Lady Gaga dance party they instigated amid the aftermath of the fires.
Since kindergarten, Charlie and other fifth graders have hardly known a school year without major disruptions wrought, arguably, by climate change — whether it was perennial wildfires that choked North Coast skies for days on end or a historic pandemic that halted in-person classes for entire semesters.
Call them Generation Disaster, a cohort of kids, who in the most cynical of views, could be living through the early hiccups of Earth’s last gasp. In some ways, it’s the next chapter of a disaster narrative that’s plagued many youth since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the early 21st-century school shooting epidemic.
Though arguably not as frightening as a real-life active shooter incident, the smoke-filled skies of a nearby wildfire have a broader and more widespread impact.
For kids in Sonoma County, they pose the most tangible existential threat, triggering anxiety and fear with every gust of wind in October.
In Florida and Louisiana, Generation Disaster is molded by hurricanes and rising seas, while in Texas, Oklahoma and the Midwest it’s tornadoes, heat waves and flooding.
When the pandemic shut everything down, Charlie, like so many other kids, turned to technology for human connection.
“I've always hated video games and the very concept of virtual reality, but have had to learn to appreciate the virtual play dates … and the pixelated beauty and creativity of the worlds they create there,” Johnson wrote in an email.
“My kid seems to be able to transition effortlessly between appreciating the beauty of the real world when we're out in it (or what's left of it) and the virtual one. What's looked like a dystopian surrealism to me is just their reality,” she said.
But technology can only do so much. Local mental health experts are increasingly seeing the emotional and psychological effects of wildfire season among young people.
Jenny Silverstein, a licensed clinical social worker and “climate aware” therapist, said the mental health issues local children face have changed since the North Bay wildfires.
“In 2017, what I was seeing was this kind of acute trauma response or acute anxiety, where sometimes kids only used a handful of sessions to kind of play out some of what they had experienced during Tubbs and then they moved on,” Silverstein said.
Subsequent wildfires and the pandemic, however, have created a more universal destabilizing effect. A year after the Tubbs Fire, smoke from the Camp Fire blanketed the North Bay even though the flames were more than 100 miles away, and then in 2019 and 2020, the Kincade, Walbridge and Glass fires roared through with a vengeance.
“I have seen that between (wildfires) and COVID … kids are having emotional and social challenges, I think, are the result of all of these disruptions — disruptions to their school routine, and it can’t so much be separated out into any single event anymore,” she said.
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