From Wildfires to Climate Action: My Journey Toward Environmental Stewardship

By Riki Bertoldi|July 20, 2023

Orange Skies: As a California native, I grew up with skies painted a haunting shade of orange, thick clouds of smoke, and snow flurries made of ash. I became accustomed to missing school or retreating indoors because of poor air quality. While this is a shockingly normal experience for a child in California, climate trends, especially concerning the frequency and intensity of wildfires, over the past two decades are anything but. I am more aware than ever that the climate crisis has scorched my beloved state and carries far-reaching consequences across the entire planet, and I’m ready to take action.

Riki, accompanied by her sister (Rei) and their parents (Roger and Charlotte), enjoyed a delightful walk through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Despite being surrounded by its consequences from birth, I learned about the climate crisis for the first time during an environmental studies course at Santa Monica Community College. This class introduced me to the fundamental principles, concepts, and practices necessary to create a sustainable future. I explored topics such as climate stewardship, resource management, sustainable agriculture, social and environmental justice, and community development. The knowledge and awareness I gained at this time ignited passion and a deep sense of responsibility within me—a calling to pursue a career in sustainability and climate action. I later transferred to UC Berkeley and majored in conservation and resource studies. 

Riki celebrated her graduation from UC Berkeley with her friends (Belle, Caralee, Cela, and Anna)

Environmental Research and Advocacy: At UC Berkeley, I dove into multiple research projects that focused on environmental justice concerns. One of the significant initiatives I worked on was a collaborative effort with Stockton AB 617 community stakeholders to tackle the adverse environmental and public health effects stemming from agricultural open burning in the San Joaquin Valley. In Stockton, California, a city with a history of redlining, the AB 617 community comprises approximately sixteen square miles and an estimated population of 132,000. This community is disproportionately affected by various health and pollution indicators, including its proximity to major highways, the Port of Stockton, freight locomotives, industrial facilities, and agricultural open burning. Regrettably, the AB 617 community ranks within the top five percent of the most disadvantaged communities in California, highlighting the burden they bear due to the historical inequities of redlining.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the regular practice of agricultural open burning releases harmful pollutants, including particulate matter, which poses significant health risks to residents in nearby communities. To address this pressing issue, our research primarily focused on three key aspects. First, we developed a real-time fire detection map to promptly inform impacted communities of nearby fires, enabling them to take appropriate precautions. Second, we taught Edison High School students how to build air filters where outdoor air pollution is high. Finally, our team created a bilingual website specifically designed to assist small, minority-owned farms in navigating government incentive programs that promote sustainable agricultural practices. This website aims to support these farmers by providing resources and guidance to adopt sustainable methods and improve their economic viability.

Our research efforts focused on raising awareness about the detrimental effects of agricultural open burning and advocating for stricter regulations to safeguard nearby communities. Simultaneously, we aimed to empower these communities by educating students and their families on improving indoor air quality and supporting farmers in adopting sustainable agricultural practices. The ultimate goal of our research was to empower communities, drive advocacy for change, and contribute to creating a healthier and more environmentally conscious society.

On a sunny summer day, Riki and her friend (Kit) completed the Dipsea Trail near Mill Valley

Fostering a Sustainable Future: I am passionate about environmental work because I recognize the urgent need for action to secure the success and prosperity of both current and future generations. Climate change presents various environmental, social, economic, and health challenges. The escalating temperatures contribute to more frequent and intense heat waves, while altered precipitation patterns lead to water scarcity, jeopardizing agriculture, food security, and access to clean drinking water. The rising sea levels and increased occurrence of extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods result in displacement and loss of lives. Additionally, climate change exacerbates social inequalities, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. Failing to take action now will burden future generations with more significant environmental challenges. We need initiatives that take immediate steps to mitigate climate change and build a sustainable and resilient future for everyone.

I feel pride and purpose in my choice to dedicate my career toward sustainability and climate action, and I am grateful for the higher education opportunities that set me on this path. However, it concerns me that it took eighteen years to learn about the environmental issues that directly impacted me. My TK–12 curriculum did not thoroughly cover climate change, even though it is undoubtedly a significant global issue that affects everyone, including children, who often experience climate anxiety. Young people deserve a comprehensive understanding of the causes, implications, and potential solutions related to climate change. It is the only way forward. That’s why I am motivated and inspired by the work we do at Ten Strands to strengthen partnerships and strategies that will bring environmental literacy to all TK–12 students in California.

Riki and Rei exploring Red Rock Canyon in Nevada

Every child should have access to a climate-ready school with curriculum, initiatives, and staff dedicated to sustainability and high-quality, environment-based education. By prioritizing these aspects, we can foster widespread societal acknowledgment of the importance of protecting our environment and taking action to mitigate climate change. We can, and must, give the future generation a fighting chance.

Riki Bertoldi
This article was written by Riki Bertoldi

Riki grew up in Los Angeles, California. Her elementary school experience played a crucial role in her language development in both English and Japanese. To further enhance her Japanese language and cultural understanding, she also attended the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. Riki attended Santa Monica Community College and UC Berkeley, where she pursued a major in B.S. Conservation and Resource Studies. Throughout her time at UC Berkeley, Riki actively engaged in various research projects focused on environmental justice issues. Notably, she collaborated with Stockton AB 617 community stakeholders to address the detrimental environmental and public health effects of open burning in the San Joaquin Valley. Additionally, she conducted a senior thesis project utilizing remote sensing technologies to monitor harmful algal blooms in Monterey Bay. Riki is thrilled to serve as a Climate Corps Fellow at Ten Strands, utilizing her skills and knowledge to contribute to building a solid foundation of data-driven initiatives aimed at fostering environmental awareness and understanding.