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  • Jan Flynn

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.

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