Climate Migration in California

“The Worst Fire season ever. Again.” These were the bold letters spread across the Los Angeles Times in September 2020. California has once again become an inferno as wildfires rage across the state, burning just under 4 million acres so far this year. Thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes, unsure when or if they can return. Wildfire season brings a new wave of destruction and trauma across the state year after year. And many Californians are leaving.

In the past two decades, there has been a six-fold increase in land burned. Scientists attribute part of the blame to the rapidly warming climate, which has caused drought, extreme heat, and fast winds—the perfect storm for fire. Not only has the area burned increased, but the duration of wildfire season has extended, beginning in early spring and lasting well into late fall. California residents who once saw wildfires as just a nuisance now spend over half of the year with a bag packed to flee. For some, that burden has become too much to bear.

“Huddling next to my air filter in my cabin in Yosemite, as the fire spewed noxious smoke just a few miles down the road, I reflected on the string of fires that had put me in similar situations in recent years. I finally realized: This is no way to live,” wrote Kelsey Slur, who migrated from California due to climate change in 2018 after the Ferguson fire. Kelsey is not alone, as many Californians have considered migrating from the fire zones.

Climate migration is a phrase that has recently made it into the media to refer to the millions of displaced people around the world who have already left their homes when they became uninhabitable due to floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. Many of these countries are equatorial, developing, and distant from the United States. In this respect, many in the United States have been largely shielded from the idea of climate migration, but this year has shown many Americans that climate disasters are here to stay, and that much of California has become uninhabitable due to the ever-growing flames.

Paradise, a small town that was burned to the ground in the 2018 Camp Fire, was evacuated again in 2020 due to the North Complex Fire, and residents have pondered uprooting permanently, noting how this year’s fires triggered trauma. Data shows that a large percentage of previous Paradise residents have moved from the mountains to Chico, an urban area that is protected from the flames.

As the California climate migration begins, it begs the question: where will these people go? How will cities support the influx? Chico, which saw a population increase of 15% overnight after the 2018 Paradise Fire, has reported an increase of poverty, trash, sewage, and housing shortages in the two years since. Those who are fleeing to safer communities may find themselves facing new dangers.

It is not just those directly in the fires’ paths who are considering migrating. Those who are searching for better air quality are also considering leaving. Oakland resident Arthur Gies is searching for houses across the country, citing that he is “just tired of this being normal,” “this” referring to weeks of ashy rain and poor air quality which suffocated much of the state this summer. In 2020, it was estimated that 17 million people experienced “very unhealthy” air quality, which is indicative of serious health risks associated with inhalation.

Another factor that has led many to migrate is the increasing cost of fire insurance. Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Tulane University, said, “Even for those who don’t lose their homes, the stress of living in a high-risk area and the cost of insurance can also drive migration. In the communities affected by the Camp Fire, remaining residents have seen their rates in some cases double, or drop entirely.” The economic burden has driven many Californians east towards Colorado and Idaho where they don’t have to pay the same insurance. Whether due to anxiety, economic reasons, or health, climate migration has begun in California and projections show it is only going to increase.

In the next forty years, it is estimated that Northern California will face an annual Megafire the size of Manhattan, while Southern California will face one every other year. The past decade is only a small taste of what future fire seasons may hold. Those who are already questioning if it’s safe to stay in 2020 may be prompted in future years to find refuge in other states. Megafires will not be the only source of climate disasters in California’s future either, as California’s coast is expected to sink 9 feet under rising sea waters by the end of the century, while the number of droughts per decade is set to rise. Climate migration, which had once seemed a distant concept to many residents in California, has already become a tragic reality.

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