Refugees in their own country as wildfire destroys California towns

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Jeannie Weber could probably rebuild her ruined house in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. But as wildfires rage with increasing frequency, it doesn’t seem safe.

Her home in Berry Creek was gutted in September, not two years after a wildfire destroyed the home of her brother Aaron in the town of Paradise and he was forced to flee with his family.

The Weber siblings are among tens of thousands of displaced Californians – refugees in their own country now scattered from coast to coast.

“It scared me so much,” Jeannie Weber, a 43-year-old massage therapist, said. “I want a place where it doesn’t burn.”

Climate change has brought warmer weather that dries out the land and drives hot winds to fan flames, scientists say, and a rise in populations living near forests has compounded the risk.

The number of acres burned by wildfire in California has increased fivefold since the early 1970s, scientists said in a study published last year by the American Geophysical Union.

Weber said she is unlikely to live again on her 5-acre wooded plot, where she once grew fruit and vegetables, but could park a trailer on the land or build a cabin to visit.

“I’ll never give up on my Berry Creek home,” said Weber, who was staying with four dogs at a hotel in the Gold Rush-era town of Nevada City.

Since August, fires have killed about 40 people in California, Oregon and Washington, destroyed nearly 6 million acres, and forced more than a half-million to either flee their homes or be prepared to do so.

Deadly infernos in northern California alone had already displaced tens of thousands of people in 2017 and 2018. Housing prices rose in places to which people fled. Poverty and long-term homelessness increased, straining social service nets.

“I would call them climate migrants,” said Jacquelyn Chase, an urban planning professor at California State University, Chico. “Even if they don’t see it like that, climate has displaced them.”

With climate change expected to drive more extreme weather across the United States, including stronger hurricanes hitting coastlines and droughts that parch the U.S. West, federal officials have urged Congress to develop a program to help states resettle people.

“Literature we reviewed and experts we interviewed suggest that in the coming decades many other communities will need to consider migrating because of changes in the climate,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in July.

When the Camp Fire raged through Paradise and nearby communities in California’s Butte County in 2018, 85 people were killed and 56,000 fled their homes, crowding hotels, parking lots and campgrounds across several counties.

About 20,000 of those who fled, roughly the population of Paradise itself, were displaced long term, said Richard Hunt, a housing and economic development consultant.

Hardest hit were renters and lower income property owners who did not have fire insurance. For poor families and retirees who had settled in Paradise because it was relatively inexpensive, the fire took everything.

Some settled in neighboring counties, but others are scattered across the United States, Chase’s research showed.

The college city of Chico felt the effects of that displacement immediately.

Home prices rose by 21 percent in the two months following the fire. The homeless population rose by 16%, more than the 12.7% increase in the state overall, a striking difference in a small city.

“We had about 10 years of population growth all overnight,” consultant Hunt said.

In neighboring Glenn County, the median home price soared by 47% in those same two months, and in Tehama County to the north by 58%, Hunt’s research showed.

Even though Chico’s population swelled after the 2018 fire, the overall population of Butte County, where Paradise, Chico and Berry Creek are located, dropped by 16,000 as others fled the region, Hunt said.

Chase and a colleague followed about a third of those left homeless by the Camp Fire. Some resettled as far away as Florida and Vermont on the eastern coast and others went north to the Canadian border.

Some survivors of the 2018 blaze plan to return, though only 360 of the thousands of homes destroyed have been rebuilt and reoccupied, Hunt said. As of July, about 1,000 property owners had taken out building permits to work on homes in Paradise.

Unlike Jeannie Weber, her Berry Creek neighbor Katrina Mulvaney said she and family members definitely plan to return to the deep woods plot of land where they had lived in trailers and small buildings that were burned last month and will now have to be replaced.

Mulvaney is distressed by the relentless wildfires but sees few better options elsewhere.

“Half the state is on fire,” the 21-year-old self-employed herbalist said. “Go to another country, they’re on fire too. You can’t really get away from it at this point.”

For many, the trauma of losing their homes and, in some cases loved ones, could haunt them for years, said environmental epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto of the University of California, Davis.

After the Tubbs Fire ravaged parts of Santa Rosa in 2017, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,600 buildings, Hertz-Picciotto and her colleagues interviewed survivors.

About 60 percent reported experiencing at least one mental health symptom, including trouble sleeping, heightened anxiety, loss of appetite or depression, according to her preliminary data. Some also reported a change in their use of alcohol and drugs. About 20 percent experienced four or more of these symptoms.

As survivors settle into new communities, many bring their trauma with them.

After losing their home of 21 years in Paradise, Joe and Enid Baggett purchased a new house in a neat suburb of Sacramento, not far from where their son lives with his family.

But two years later, they still haven’t had the heart to fully furnish it. They did buy a kitchen table but in the living room, only a mattress lies on the floor.

Joe Baggett, a 68-year-old lawyer, retired from his practice after the shock left him with trouble focusing. Shortly after the fire he found himself dazed in a supermarket, unable to process what a clerk was saying to him as he reeled from the loss of the town and community they’d grown to love.

“It’s gone,” he said. “It’s not like our house burned. The entire world burned.”

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