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Wildfire threat darkens California dream, residents say

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 November 2019 10:00 GMT

A view of a house near Geyserville, California, burned in the Kincade wildfire that started on Oct 23, 2019 and was driven by strong winds, Nov. 5, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ellen Wulfhorst

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As more powerful wildfires threaten more people, the Golden State may be losing its shine, some residents say

By Ellen Wulfhorst

HEALDSBURG, Calif., Nov 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kinsey Metts moved to California for its wilderness and great outdoors. Now she wants to leave for the same reasons.

This autumn's rash of destructive wildfires - predicted to grow worse in coming years as climate change strengthens - is threatening to shatter the California Dream that has long lured people to the state, drawn by its sunny weather and opportunities for a better life.

With increasingly powerful fires ripping through northern and southern California again and again, the question of leaving is now on plenty of people's minds.

Metts, on maternity leave with a nine-week-old son, was forced to evacuate her rural Geyserville home, in the wine country north of the San Francisco Bay area, when the October Kincade fire tore through the hills behind it.

"We've loved our life here," said Metts, who works for a non-profit helping at-risk children. "We love the outdoors and to backpack and kayak."

"But I don't know if I want to stay here anymore. It just feels like it's getting worse and worse," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Artist Jessie Mercer gives a resident of wildfire-hit Paradise, California, a hug near her sculpture Key Phoenix, made with keys from thousands of homes and buildings lost in the November 2018 blaze, Nov. 8, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ellen Wulfhorst

California has long faced annual wildfires, but their geographic extent has increased fivefold since the early 1970s, according to research published this summer in Earth's Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, an international group of scientists.

The study pointed to more fires and to fires increasingly fueled by vegetation made drier by climate change.

"Human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California ... and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades," the study said.

Many residents say those differences are now hitting perilously close to home.

Rocio Mercado moved to California from Mexico 23 years ago and was one of the nearly 200,000 people ordered to evacuate as the Kincade fire burned.

"I love California, but honestly I don't know if I want to live here for the rest of my life," she said outside the Healdsburg grocery store, where she is a supervisor. "I don't feel safe anymore."

A view of hills near Geyserville, California, burned in the Kincade fire that started on Oct 23, 2019 and was driven by strong winds, Nov. 5, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ellen Wulfhorst


More people have been moving out of California than moving in from other states, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Last year, about 691,000 people left California but only about 500,000 people arrived - part of a trend that reaches back several years, data showed.

Those leaving California are driven by more than just wildfires - but the growing fire threat has become too significant to ignore, some feel.

"For the very first time in our lives, we're probably going to leave California," said Lynne Imel, whose house burned in the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise in 2018.

The blaze killed 85 people and stands as the state's most lethal wildfire on record.

"I don't want to talk about the fire for the rest of my life. We want a fresh start," Imel said as she attended a memorial ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

Imel and her husband, who live in Sacramento, had planned to retire to their Paradise home, but may now move across the border into the state of Nevada, she said.

But for many others, leaving doesn't feel like an option.

"The question is, where do you relocate?" asked Michael Pigoni, the fire chief in El Cerrito, California. He pointed to hurricanes in the U.S. Southeast, tornadoes and flooding in the Midwest and cold weather in the North.

Wherever weather-related threats hit, "you learn to adjust," he said.

A view of the Soda Rock Winery in California's Sonoma County, destroyed in the Kincade fire, Nov. 6, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ellen Wulfhorst

Diane Wilson, whose Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg burned in the Kincade fire, similarly said she and her husband would rebuild, noting she was "not a big worrier."

"I don't see us leaving because of the fires. We have to adapt," she said.

"We were a little traumatized," she admitted. But "now we're looking forward."

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Laurie Goering

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