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Wildfire-weary Californians, 'tired of this being normal,' consider uprooting their lives

Wildfire-weary Californians, 'tired of this being normal,' consider uprooting their lives
Posted at 11:25 AM, Sep 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-20 13:25:16-04

It's not just the nearly 7,900 wildfires that have consumed more than 3.4 million acres and claimed 26 lives in California that have Arthur Gies looking online for apartments in New York.

"It's not necessarily this year of wildfires so much as the dam breaking on the realization that this is not just the new normal but just a prelude to what's coming," the 39-year-old Oakland resident says. "And just being sort of tired of this being normal."

The website editor and video game consultant has lived in Northern and Southern California his entire life. As a teenager in the San Diego area, he was familiar with the stench of smoke and flakes of ash that rained down after wildfires.

Lately, however, weeks of unhealthy air quality readings and thick shrouds of smoke that some days make it impossible to see the lagoon three blocks from his Lake Merritt home are becoming unbearable. And he's not alone.

"I have one friend that recently moved to Idaho to take care of family and isn't coming back," Gies said. "And he and his wife and child had been living in San Francisco for more than a decade... I have other friends that work at dot-coms or tech companies in the Bay Area and have lived here for anywhere from seven to ten years and are talking about leaving very seriously."

Gies himself is seriously considering a cross country move to Brooklyn or Manhattan to escape the anxiety of life in California.

The latest talk about people fleeing the California dream comes during an apocalyptic summer of record-breaking temperatures, raging fires that have forced thousands to flee their homes up and down the West Coast, unprecedented lightning strikes, rolling blackouts that left millions in the dark, and ghostly orange and Martian-red skies.

And late Friday, another perennial threat, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake, struck Southern California. No damage or injuries were reported but it jarred the sense of security of some already-rattled Californians.

Climate driven disasters becoming 'actual moving force' for relocation

Scientists have long acknowledged that the fingerprints of global warming are all over the wildfires and so many other disasters. And far worse disasters could be on the horizon. The more humans heat up the planet, the greater the odds of hot, dry conditions conducive to fires. The planet has warmed by a global average of roughly 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s, with human activity responsible for the bulk of that increase.

This past August was the warmest on record in California, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Each of the past six years were at least 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the historical average.

According to the National Climate Assessment, a major "state-of-science" review of climate change and its projected impacts on the US, additional warming of about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit can be expected over the next few decades regardless of future emissions.

"It's very important to be thinking about the fact that people will start making decisions about moving because of climate driven pressures," said University of Southern California professor Bistra Dilkina, who has modeled migration patterns from sea-level rise.

"So far we've been kind of living very much in the world where movement, at least in the US, is really based on more about economic opportunities. But, as the intensity of climate driven disasters is increasing, I think it will become an actual moving force, even within the US, for people to change their decision making in terms of relocating the whole family."

Scientists have projected that 13 million Americans could be be forced to relocate by 2100 from rising sea levels submerging coastlines. And that's not taking into account the ongoing threat of wildfires, droughts and other disasters.

"When there's a tipping point where people really understand that that's something that they need to integrate in their decision making about moving, we're going to see more movements that are based partially on that reasoning as well," Dilkina said. "And so, from that perspective, I do believe that fires are going to start becoming one of the factors."

Dilkina said she has only lived in the Los Angeles metro area for a couple of years. Her family purchased a home in Rancho Palos Verdes in the beginning of the summer.

"We have been basically locked up mostly at home for the last four days, which is very difficult to do with my with two kids -- a three-year-old and eight-year-old -- going crazy," she said. "The air quality is really bad, and so that has basically made us just stay at home."

Fire, smoke become 'mind-numbingly common'

LeRoy Westerling, a University of California Merced expert on wildfires and the weather that drives them, has had his home in Mariposa County threatened twice by fires in recent years. The 2017 Detwiler Fire led to the evacuation of Westerling and his neighbors. The 2018 Ferguson Fire, which burned through 96,601 acres of the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and state lands, also posed a risk to his community.

"Right now, we're being impacted pretty severely by the Creek Fire but it's not in danger of burning the town, it's just the air pollution is so bad that you can't stay there right now," he said, referring to the ongoing fire that has so far consumed nearly 250,000 acres in Fresno and Madera counties.

Along with the threats to life and property, Westerling said, is the issue of insuring his two homes in Mariposa.

"We can't get decent fire insurance anymore," he said. "So if your house does burn down, you don't have full coverage."

He was able to find insurance to cover one home that was dropped by a company last year. The coverage of his other home was dropped this month, he said.

Now Westerling, whose family has lived in California for five generations, is contemplating a move.

"I've had this conversation myself at home lately," he said of the possibility of relocating further north in the state, the Pacific Northwest or even Canada. "It's like balancing different risk issues... It's really just mind-numbingly common now that we get the smoke not just from the nearby fires but from all over the place."

Gies, the website editor and video game consultant, said there was a time when Californians mainly worried about occasional temblors.

"The entire time that I can remember being aware of anything is the idea that earthquakes are a thing we're waiting for -- huge earthquakes on multiple faults," said Gies, who has lived in Oakland for 13 years.

"And that's something that hangs over California all the time. And now it's not just that. It's that anytime it's warm and it hasn't rained for a couple months, the prospect of just really life altering wildfires are becoming not just possible but expected," he added.

"Climate disaster is something that will affect almost everywhere but the ways in which it's affecting places like the Eastern seaboard that are not in the direct path of hurricane season feels more manageable to me than the fires and earthquakes here."

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