California burning

A satellite image showing the huge smoke plume from 560 fires burning in California. Credit: European Space Agency

It’s been more than a month since I’ve blogged my #LocalYear progress. The going has been rough.

As I write, the San Francisco Bay Area where I live is surrounded by wildfire caused by a massive, dry lightning storm that generated over 10,000 lightning strikes in a three day period. The timing couldn’t have been worse as this came in the middle of a heat wave (112F in Sacramento) and extra dry conditions. As a result, there are over 560 fires in California that have burnt nearly 800,000 acres in the last week. The fires still rage, two becoming among the largest in state history. And more dry lighting is predicted. Governor Newsom has called in firefighters from around the country, though social distancing has slowed firefighting.

The kids are back in school, but rolling blackouts threaten to disrupt their virtual classrooms. We have the worst air quality in the world due to the fires. The combination of poor air quality and high heat means that the many people without air conditioning in our area, including us, can’t open their windows to cool down. The last time the Bay Area was engulfed in wildfire smoke, I didn’t seal our house and felt poorly for months after breathing in untold amounts of particulate matter. Consequently, we’ve decided to stay inside our sealed house and literally sweat it out.

That’s not all. A friend’s home burnt to the ground. She lost everything and we’re sitting her dog until she rents a new place. Over 100,000 people have evacuated including many friends. In fact, all Californians have been told to be prepared to evacuate. Forests where we’ve camped among redwoods up to 1,500 years old in California’s oldest state park have been burned through. Our babysitter and her son have COVID-19.

If this isn’t bad enough, my son is suffering from anxiety. Sometimes he simply refuses to do anything including fun stuff. He just wants to stay in his room and play Roblox. I don’t blame him, but this is crushing to experience as a parent. Unfortunately, we’re far from alone. This is common in our circle and well beyond it. I can’t get my head around kids 10 years old and younger suffering from anxiety. It’s heartbreaking. We’re getting my son help, but the kids are definitely not alright.  

Dandelion heads
We’re trying all kinds of activities to keep our son in good spirits. We had a couple kids in our pod over and challenged them to a dandelion hunt in the common area. I paid a bounty of 25 cents a head. They made out like bandits. Credit: Neal Gorenflo  

Meanwhile, the pandemic, economic crisis, and our decline as a country continue. It’s just a shit time with crisis piling on crisis. I haven’t been through a crisis this bad, nowhere near it. We’re in uncharted waters. I can’t help thinking that more is coming.   

And yet, there are bright spots and we carry on.

A group of us have been working for months on a new, more green grounds maintenance agreement for our community. Last week we finalized a deal with a new company that will not only save our community thousands of dollars, but make it safer. We’ve switched to all natural pesticides and fertilizer plus electric leaf blowers instead of gas ones. The main improvement might be that the new company will do less overall. The heavy equipment these companies use tear up our grounds. The cherry on top is that the new company is going to do a complete assessment of our irrigation system, which I think we can optimize further even after reducing water use by around 50%.

Neighborhood work party
A work party my neighbors and I organized to clear a section of the common area overrun by ivy. Not the best pic, but it protects my neighbors’ privacy. Credit: Neal Gorenflo

And then there are my neighbors! We’ve bonded since the pandemic broke through Cool Block, working on the grounds together, and food drives for the larger community. As a recent example, I mentioned to a neighbor that I couldn’t make a grounds committee meeting that evening because it was our wedding anniversary. He knocked on my door later that day with a bottle of champagne and a sweet card. That was a first. I was really touched. 

In addition, my community garden neighbors gave us a jar of homemade green salsa made from their bumper crop of tomatillos. Before that they gave us a huge bag of pasta made from California grown wheat. We made a simple pasta dish featuring our homegrown cherry tomatoes (see below). It was delicious!

Pasta dinner
A recent pasta dinner made of local ingredients (Etto pasta, homegrown cherry tomatoes, Snoop Dog’s 19 Crimes California red blend, and olive oil from Carmel Valley). Credit: Neal Gorenflo

Naturally, we’ve reciprocated. I’ve given away a bunch of produce from our garden including corn, watermelon, and tomatoes. In fact, I’ve come to see our community garden plot as a source of gifts for neighbors. It’s too small to produce more than a tiny fraction of our family food supply, but it’s enough for gifts and to trade with neighbors. 

Corn from the harvest
Some produce from the neighborhood. The corn went from stalk to pot to plate in about 30 minutes. Delicious! Credit: Neal Gorenflo

I’ve lost track of all the exchanges, but the steady flow of ideas, things, and support between us has continued since my last post. Mutual aid is an everyday reality. For instance, we just had a great Slack exchange about wildfire preparedness including tips for dealing with the toxic air. In any case, I feel like I can count on my neighbors. That’s a huge change. It couldn’t come at a better time as we navigate some seriously challenging times.

And there’s another bright spot — downtown Mountain View is more lively than ever now that the cars are gone on the main drag and hundreds of people are dining safely on the street. It’s beautiful. Some of the local restaurants just might make it.

Downtown Mountain View
A stretch of Mountain View’s main drag is closed to cars, but now open to outdoor dining. I hope this change sticks.


This post is part of Neal Gorenflo’s year-long experiment in living locally (#LocalYear). Follow his journey by reading other posts in the series.

Neal Gorenflo


Neal Gorenflo | |

Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and board president of Shareable, an award-winning nonprofit news, action network, and consultancy for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to

Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, tools, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.