Becoming Climate Refugees

Trying to escape the California wildfires

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

It’s the second time we’ve evacuated in four days

We drive north and east, away from Napa Valley, away from the flames, away, we hope, from the noxious smoke. But as the highway ascends into the Sierras, the smoky miasma persists. It transforms the glorious scenery surrounding Lake Tahoe into a muted, oppressive landscape. The highest peaks are barely visible through the murk; even the trees seem weighted with dejection as though awaiting their own doom.

We make bitter jokes. Better get this forest raked, we say. But it’s mostly federal land out there. I try to pretend the sickly, pinkish-gray air is cloud cover, full of life-restoring rain. I don’t succeed.

We hope the pall will lift once we’re on the other side of the mountains, but when we reach Reno the city is shrouded in smoke, its casino lights glowing dimly through the gathering gloom. As night comes on and we keep driving, the full moon rises, its outlines indistinct, its face the color of old blood.

Not until we’re far out into the Nevada desert do we reach clear air. The moon returns to silver; stars appear. We have hours of driving ahead of us, but we feel lighter.

Luckily, we didn’t unpack the car after our first evacuation

The Glass Fire erupted on Sunday, September 27 in the hills surrounding our Napa Valley town, spreading to nearly 60,000 acres by week’s end. The fire, like many in California in this worst-of-the-worst-so-far fire season, were driven by hot weather and dry winds.They devoured oak forest, chaparral, wineries, and homes. Until now, we’d escaped the worst; the LNU Lightning Complex Fires in August had turned our air a nightmarish, toxic orange for two weeks, but we’d been able to remain in place.

This time, it didn’t look like we’d be so lucky. Our neighborhood in St. Helena on the valley floor wasn’t under an evacuation order, but with the temperatures rising above 100 and the outlook uncertain, we loaded our car with essentials and whatever would fit that we knew we couldn’t replace — documents, a few paintings, framed photos, the dog. Her stuff. Our stuff. Snacks and water.

We headed to friends down on the Peninsula, 30 miles south of San Francisco. By the time we got there, we’d learned that our neighborhood had lost power. The TV showed continuing coverage of the flames and destruction. Family and friends called and texted, frantic to find out if we were safe. We assured them we were, and that from what we were hearing, our home and the surrounding houses were out of danger; we’d return as soon as power was restored.

We joked it was our turn for this. My sister near Santa Cruz had been ordered to evacuate for several days in August due to the fires then raging near the coast. Colleagues in the nearby communities of Angwin and Pope Valley were undergoing their second or third evacuations this season alone.

Our friends put us up in their small, cozy home. Two nights later we got the news that the electricity was on back home. We watched as much of the first presidential debate as we could stomach, then headed back to St. Helena.

After one night in our own bed, we awaken to the smell of smoke

It seeps inside the house, despite our sealed doors and windows. Our phones burble with emergency alerts. There’s an official evacuation warning that covers our area. Someone from the housing development knocks on our door and tells us to be ready to leave.

We peer through our windows at the thickening blanket of ash-laden air. The temperature is already above ninety and heading higher. We decide to add a few items to our go-pile: a few more framed photos, a hand-turned wooden bowl.

Anyone who has been in a situation like this will understand the weird sense of suspension as you wait for the next official alert, the next nugget of credible news, the next shoe to drop. Once you’ve prepared all you can, there is nothing much to do. Adrenaline is a slow, steady drip as your energy is held in escrow.

By afternoon, with sirens wailing past at odd intervals, we see that the Air Quality Index is near 600 — hazardous and getting worse. We’re in our sixties, healthy and fit but no longer young. Both of us are prone to lung complaints. It’s time to go. Where? Back to our friends’ house? We’ve already imposed on them, and they have challenges of their own at the moment.

No, we will head to Idaho, where family waits to take us in. If we drive straight through, we’ll be there in the wee hours of the following morning.

We know how fortunate we are to have such options.

Taking action is some relief; we strap on our hoarded N95 masks and load up our suitcases, the dog, and ourselves. On my last trip out the door I look around at the furniture handcrafted by someone loved and long gone, at my ceramics collection, at our shelves stuffed with books. Goodbye, I say. Hope I see you again.

We reach Eagle, Idaho around 3:00AM

After a few hours sleep, we spend the day near a lake, visiting at a safe distance with family we haven’t seen since February. The air is warm but taking on the hint of autumn. We can see the foothills above Boise. We are safe and very, very lucky.

And maybe we won’t be extending our tenants’ lease on our Boise house. No place in the West is safe from wildfires, but NorCal has taken a relentless beating since 2017. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye not only to our stuff, but to a region we’ve loved.

Goodbye to the smell of eucalyptus and bay laurel wafting on marine-cooled air, to mossy oaks and towering redwoods foresting the hills and canyons, to vineyards spreading over the valley floor and climbing slopes like a vast quilt. To legendary wineries. To a landscape with all the charm of southern France or Tuscany. To the fabulous food, gorgeous wine, and exquisite coffee. And to San Francisco, only a delightful ferry ride across the bay.

But Idaho has charms of its own. It has more water. And it’s currently not on fire, although no place in the West is exempt. The smoke from California is turning the air up here hazy.

We learn that one of our friends, a writer and artist, has lost her house, getting out with only a few clothes and her dog. Her previous house burned down in the Tubbs Fire in 2017. She too loves the Napa Valley environment — at least, the way it’s been up until now, until climate change ticked over from being a worry to a here-and-now catastrophe — but she’s wondering where to move next.

I suggested she consider Idaho.

But I didn’t think we’d be escaping north — at least, not so soon.

8 Replies to “Becoming Climate Refugees”

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Thank you so much . . . but we feel so incredibly fortunate to have wonderful family here to fall back on, and from what we hear our St. Helena house is safe for now. I so appreciate you reading and responding!

      Reply
  1. Susan Shay

    Thank you for telling the story of so many of us in Napa Valley though I’m guessing not so many of us ended up in Idaho. We are all weary with this constant fear of fire and I’m sure each of us thinks about where we could go to get away from it all. This has been a particularly terrible fire season and the first response has to be gratitude to the firefighters and first responders who have put their lives on the line to save us and our homes. But the second Is surely to ask how long can endure this fear and uncertainty. I don’t know the answer to that but today sky is blue and the air relatively clear. I have been evacuated for a week now and am tentatively planning to go home tomorrow. I am one of the lucky ones to still have a home. I for one hope you will be back Jan, But I certainly understand why you might choose another option.

    Reply
    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Oh, we will most certainly be back . . . the question is only for how long. We’re watching the air quality and waiting until it seems reasonable to return. And I think of you often!

      Reply
  2. Anni

    Dear Jan and Michael: We have been thinking about you throughout these multiple crises with great concern, watching the online fire maps to see how close the flames were getting to your home, and yes, we too consider where our future lies, as we choke on wildfire smoke for weeks and shutter indoors with hot, stale air, our car loaded with basic evacuation gear and boxes of photos… We recall your previous brief evacuation with us, what, last year? The year before? (I can’t keep track… so many fires in recent years…) When your loaded pickup just fit under the eve of our carport for a night? But this time, we were solidly in the smoke zone, and Purple Air readings are still above normal even today. So enjoy some clear air, and breathe deep in Boise! Share the joy of renewed family connections and comfort, and we will look forward to a Covid safe visit with you in the hopefully, not too distant future, when we can be closer than six feet, and actually hug each other again. Sending you our love and some virtual hugs for now!

    Reply
    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Ah yes, I remember arriving at your place with my car full of stuff and Michael’s truck packed like the Joads’ . . . even unto the rocking chair. We’re still grateful for that respite! Let’s hope we can indeed meet, three-dimensionally, again soon!

      Reply
  3. Jim Carpenter

    You two have been much in my thoughts lately, I’m glad to hear you’re well and safe, glad you have options—so many don’t. I’ve been in communication with some friends up at Ashland, Oregon and it’s devastated that area. I’m sending so many prayers these days. Big love to the both of you. If you need anything, ask. Jim and Cass

    Reply

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