“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.
Climate driven disasters becoming ‘actual moving force’ for relocation
“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.”
“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’
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.”