What will be the quality of life in Bakersfield over the next five years? And what will be the quality of life for people who live here 20 years from now? In the course of one’s life, there are events that occur that make one question the life choices you have made. But no one single event more dramatically altered many people’s perception of moving to the southern Central Valley than the weeks of smoke, ash and oppressive heat that made people sick and life here simply unbearable. Inflicting insult to toxic smoke injury is the normal “trapped like a rat in a hot smoke filled box” mammal instinct to get out of a smoke-filled area.
Worse yet is a collective mental health breakdown in many individuals who are forced to stay. Think of the wildfire scene from the Disney classic “Bambi,” with the addition of a chain-link fence blocking all exit routes. With the reality that the megadrought could conceivably last decades accompanied with months of unbreathable smoke, ash and heat, some of us have begun to believe that we may now live in a place that will be uninhabitable for months every year.
To many who have lived in Bakersfield for some time, the change in our seasons has been profound. The rain, fog and cold of winter Pacific storms seems to have been missing. It has been replaced with these never-ending winter high pressure cells from the interior of Canada, leaving Bakersfield to collect all the dirty air from the Bay Area and all points south thereof.
Bakersfield’s unique location at the bottom of an ancient inland sea surrounded on three sides by high mountains would make it a natural “smog trap,” under even ideal circumstances, given the prevailing winds that tend to blow north to south. Added to the questionable air quality of a “normal” Bakersfield day will be months of smoke-filled haze from a never-ending stream of cryptic named fires from bark beetle-infested, drought-dead forest.
And then there is the drought itself, and the very likely prospect that it could continue for many years, eliminating most of the agricultural economy as water becomes too valuable, and is changed into an expensive “sell to the highest bidder” item.
Perhaps these are merely the rambling, disjointed statements of yet another “the sky is falling” alarmist. Maybe it will begin to gently rain from now until March. Wildflowers, not wildfires, will return to our mountains. Lakes and streams will be returned to their former predrought glory. But it is also easy to see the ancient Pueblo people having these same water fantasies in 1150, in southwestern Utah, before a forced migration to where rivers still flowed. No one can predict the future. But here in Bakersfield, it would appear we have no plan at all for a prolonged drought and months of smoky air.
Maybe now, as opposed to later, would be a good time to prepare for this apocalyptic hellscape that this place has shown it can become. Bakersfield is going through challenges like never before. It’s hard to predict if anyone will be able to live here, at least all year long, 20 years from now.
Noel Pineo has been a resident of Kern County for more than 30 years. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at BakersfieldBicyclee2020@gmail.com.