Fires are raging throughout the state, driven by dry brush and too little rain. Our air quality, always worrisome at best, continues to rise into dangerous levels, only furthered by the smoke which is filling our air. The simple act of going outside is hazardous to our health. It’s climate change, folks, rearing its ugly head.

A couple of times a year, we hear, yet again, that we have the worst air in the country. We shrug it off. Yes, we say. We know. We live here and breathe this air, and we know. Our children have asthma, and physical activity is regularly moved indoors because it’s dangerous to breathe. That thought, in and of itself, should be horrifying: the air we breathe is literally hazardous to our health. But we accept it, and unless something major happens to affect it (like these current fires), we push it into the back of our minds until the next time someone accuses us of having the worst air in the country. We know.

But we shouldn’t accept it. We should want better for ourselves, shouldn’t we? “Bakersfield: The Sound of Something Better.” Not, “Bakersfield: The Sound of Something Better, and The Smell of Air Pollution.”

Now is the time to act. The air quality is only going to get worse, fires are only going to become more common and more deadly, our sky is only going to become darker and our children sicker, unless we act decisively and quickly. The question is just how we should act.

Firstly, we need to fund and increase public transport. Our local GET Bus system does a wonderful job, and many people rely on it for daily use. However, for many people, it just isn’t feasible in its current state. A work commute, which may take an average of 20 minutes in a car, takes a full hour and a half via bus. That mostly comes down to frequency and availability of bus routes. If we increase their funding, we can see more buses, more routes and more frequent stops. More public transport, and more frequent use of that transport, means an increase in air quality. Ridesharing and carpooling are even simpler things that we can do to reduce our emissions.

Secondly, we need to be responsible with how we interact with our outdoor spaces. We are so incredibly lucky to have access to amazing recreation areas, from the canyon up into the Kern River Valley, to the Tehachapi and Mojave areas, to Lake Ming. Unfortunately, we are a couple of stray sparks away from losing it all. When the ground is dry (read: 90 percent of the time), think very seriously about whether or not you need that campfire. If you do, be responsible! Have water on hand, build in a clear area and make sure the fire is fully out before you leave. When you do leave, make sure any trash that you have created goes with you. Beyond the fact that litter is an ecological disaster, it also becomes just more fuel for the next fire. Pack in, pack out.

Finally, we need to pressure local businesses to create and maintain standards of environmental responsibility. To put it simply, individual change is great, but industrial change is better. We need to encourage and incentivize our local growers, miners and oil producers to find cleaner ways of producing the things we need. This might come in the form of creating grants for local producers to replace that outdated, smoke-belching equipment, or maybe creating buy-back or phase-out programs. No one person has all the answers, but it’s time that the community came together as a whole to create solutions.

It's not going to be easy, or quick, or cheap. But it is necessary. We have to take a stand now, today, to try to roll back the clock on these environmental disasters. This can’t be something we just accept and move on from. Otherwise, in 10 years, Kern County’s newest must-have accessory might just be a gas mask. 

Allie Wyatt is the founder of Zero Waste Bakersfield, a local nonprofit. Find out more at zerowastebakersfield.com.