Feb 20, 2022

Interviews with California Climate Migrants

Fire | by Wendy Erickson | 5 Minutes

After years of record breaking fire seasons in California, many individuals and families are making the hard decision to relocate to areas in the U.S. with decreased risk of severe climate events. According to a study in Climate Change, 57 percent of Americans believe that climate-related weather events will influence their future moving decisions. Many of these “climate refugees”, like Nena and David James and Diana Holt, who requested to use a pseudonym, are looking to the Pacific Northwest as a relatively climate-safe location.

For some, the decision to relocate is rooted in immediate experiences of the damage and horror of extreme fire. Nena and David James lived in Magelia, only 4 miles from Paradise California, when the Camp Fire hit. On the early morning of November 8th in 2018, they gathered belongings and fled town. Nina remembers, “Half of the sky was black, and half of it was blue, clear sky. And I said, oh, that’s bad.” The James’ point to how lucky they were that they were alerted to the fire and had a reasonably safe way out of town; many residents were fatally trapped in long lines of traffic at one of the town’s few exits.

The Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes and buildings. The fire destroyed almost all of the town of Paradise, but spared parts of Magelia. The devastation left over after the fire, burnt businesses and cars stuck on the side of the road, continued to be a traumatic reminder of what had been lost. “We lost our doctors, our friends,… our stores, everything gone”, said Nena, “I couldn't have lived there anymore, because I would cry just going through town.”

Fire - Property damage from Camp wildfire in California

The tragic events of that day and the economic disaster that followed convinced Nena and David James to move out of their home of 21 years, although their house managed to escape serious damage by less than a mile. Almost all their friends and neighbors eventually made the same choice, many citing the continued danger of fire in the area. Nena and David were drawn to Washington State to rebuild, as were many from Paradise. David said, “I kinda know that the Northwest is known to be wet, and I know it’s drying out somewhat, but it’s still a wetter, cooler climate.” They bought a house where the trees were at least 30 feet from the property, and keep the trees closely trimmed.

For other climate refugees from California, persistent smoke cover and other secondary fire risks are causing residents to make similar difficult decisions to move. In recent years, a typical fire season has involved months of smoke, disruptions to business, and obscured views. Diana Holt, a resident of the tourist town of Napa, describes how these disruptions motivated her and her partner’s decision to move to Washington State in 2022, as she describes “someplace with more of a future from a climate standpoint.” Although fires in 2017 crept close to her home, Holt primarily points to the ongoing effect of fire seasons that are much longer than they used to be and long, intense droughts in the area.

For Holt, moving to a place with a more stable climate was crucial, and also a means of preserving her health and well-being. She foresees the Napa fires as an existential threat to the Napa area and doesn’t want to live through future fire seasons there, despite her love for the area. Holt and her partner were looking for a more temperate winter than in the Midwest and East Coast; the Northwest was the perfect location, especially because of its cultural similarities to California.

Climate refugees may or may not strongly connect the extreme weather events that caused them to relocate with the effects of climate change. For Holt, “the intensity and frequency of these fires was directly related to climate change” and “if it weren’t for the fires, if it weren’t for the impact of climate change on Napa Valley we wouldn’t be moving.” But, the residents of Magelia and Paradise reportedly had a wide variety of reactions to where the cause of the fire lay. For Nena James, the combination with extreme winds and previous drought conditions which have worsened due to climate change were the main cause of the fire getting out of control.

However, many in Paradise were more concerned with the negligence of the Pacific Gas and Electric company and the state of forest management practices in the region, described David, particularly the amount of flammable ground cover that had built up in the surrounding forest land. Holt also describes these concerns, particularly how we have neglected the use of controlled burns. She says, “I’m hopeful that the government gets on top of forest management more and … lets go of this pristine untouched wilderness idea and actually gets more actively working with ecologists and people who understand how to maintain a healthy forest.” But she thinks that finding the political will and money to make these changes on a large scale could be difficult.

Both the James’ and Holt’s experiences of fire risks point to the uncertainty and fear of never knowing where extreme weather will strike and how it will affect your community. Holt says “It’s so random, you don’t really know. ” She describes how small differences like the distance of vegetation from houses, or their safety from flying embers, caused some houses to be destroyed but not others. Holt has been looking into resources to measure risks and compare extreme climate events between Washington State and California. She is surprised more people aren't taking similar steps to measure their future risk, “Buying a house is the biggest investment most people will make in their lives, and to not even know what your risks are for what it’s going to look like when you’re still paying your mortgage in 25 years, that’s crazy to me.”

Climate-induced migration is a relatively new discussion in the U.S., although it has long been an urgent issue in the global south. Effects of climate change are reaching across the U.S. from hotter and more arid climates in Southwest America to worsened winter flooding and summer fire activity in the Northwest. Nena James said, “It’s scary no matter where you live,” but she feels more comfortable where there is green and moisture in the air.