Five Questions with a Climate Migrant
I first met today's interviewee this summer while our kids were playing at a local space. As moms do, we got to chatting and I learned that her family had recently moved to New Hampshire from California. I started asking questions about what brought them to New Hampshire and how they liked it here. One answer I didn't expect? Climate change. "We got tired of the fires," she said. After a few weeks, I worked up the nerve to ask this new Granite Stater about being interviewed for GreenLifeNH. She graciously agreed. More below!
1) Please tell us about life in California. What are some aspects you miss? I was born and raised in Sonoma County, California. Also known as "Wine Country, it is absolutely beautiful. Rolling hills covered in vineyards, quaint little towns with great restaurants and boutiques. We were 45 minutes (give or take with traffic) to San Francisco, 20 minutes to the beach (usually foggy and cold, not like the "California Beaches" you see on tv, but still enjoyable), 20 minutes to incredible Redwood Forests. The weather was mild all year. No snow, little rain. It was wonderful. There were still seasons but they were more subtle changes than what we experience here in New Hampshire.
We had a good life in California. We were always doing activities and spending time with friends. We miss our friend group and feel fortunate that FaceTime allows us to "see" everyone. Another big adjustment for us in moving here has been the food. We did not realize how fortunate we were in California to have fresh produce available in abundance year round. California is also incredibly diverse and there are restaurants for any type of cuisine that you'd want.
2) "Being tired of dealing with the fires" was your impetus behind moving to New England. Can you tell us about your experiences and if you feel they've gotten worse over time? California has always experienced wildfires, but they have continued to become more and more destructive and impactful.
The 2017 Santa Rosa Tubbs fire was the first fire to personally impact us. It was an incredibly windy night. Sometime in the middle of the night we were awoken by my husband's phone ringing. He was a police officer (now medically retired) and was being asked to come in immediately. He was told a massive, out of control fire was spreading quickly. They needed all officers to come-in immediately to provide mutual aid and help with evacuations from the fire. He got up quickly and we realized the power was out. He called me into the living room and from our back window we could see the hills behind our home aglow with flames. It was terrifying.
As he got ready, we discussed whom I should call, what I should pack and when I should put the kids and dog in the car and go. He left to go to the station and I began to pack the car. I grabbed our most sentimental items, food, clothing, important paperwork and put them in the car. Then I scooped up my sleeping 4 year old and one year old and put them in their carseats. My sister and her family lived down the road. Together we carpooled into Petaluma, usually a 20 minute drive. It took 2 hours. My son watched out the window and saw the fire on the hill side. I tried my best to comfort him and calm him. We were welcomed into an Elk Lodge that opened up for first responders families who were misplaced. People started to pour in and we heard terrifying stories of people driving through the fire to escape.
This fire was unlike any other. It began in the mountains, where few lived but the winds blew burning embers miles away, across freeways, into suburban neighborhoods. Whole neighborhoods were wiped out. It did not seem real. We were able to go stay at my parents' home which was a safe distance away from the fires. We were incredibly fortunate that our home and neighborhood were still intact. We were out of our home for a week. While the initial danger passed within the first few days, it took a week for power to be restored, water to be deemed safe to use and the air to clear enough to not be dangerous. It was difficult going home and feeling safe. It took another two weeks to put the fire out completely. Fall had always been my favorite time of year in Sonoma County. The changing leaves on the vines were absolutely beautiful. We loved to go apple picking and to pumpkin patches. There were great outdoor Fall Festivals. That all changed. Starting in September, the threat of fires increased. There always seemed to be a fire burning somewhere and it impacted the air quality to the point that we could not go outside. There was one especially eerie day: it was hazy and yellow. It felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie. The next three years, we were forced to evacuate 2 more times.
In 2020, my family, including my parents and sister and her family, sat in a hotel room and discussed leaving. We could not take it anymore. It felt like if it wasn't this year, it could be the next. We were all dealing with some level of PTSD from the fires. Everyone in Sonoma County was. Around this time, The New York Times Magazine had an article on Climate Migration and it scared me. I was scared for the future for my kids. California seemed like a sinking ship and I wanted off. We looked up "states with the least amount of natural disasters" - Vermont and New Hampshire topped the list. My paternal grandmother was born and raised in Manchester. My dad still has cousins in New Hampshire. We decided to go. Our goal was to create a safe homebase for ourselves and our children for years to come. Our homes were on the market in a matter of weeks. Somehow, even with the fires, real estate continued to sell quickly and high. We accepted the best offer and closed mid-November. We packed a Pod and filled our car and started cross country. We arrived in Manchester on Thanksgiving 2020.
3) What is your experience as a "climate migrant"? What are some positives about moving to New Hampshire? And what has been unexpectedly difficult? I recognize that picking up your whole life and moving cross country is not possible for everyone. We were fortunate to have family make the move with us and jobs that allow us to work from anywhere. Our kids were young enough that it wasn't especially disruptive. We choose to look at it as an adventure.
We feel safer here in New Hampshire. Learning how to live and drive in snow has been less challenging than I anticipated. Our kids are making friends and love all of the activities they are involved in. We are building a home on 4 acres, something that would never have been possible in California. The most difficult things have been adjusting to the weather (snow, humidity, mud season) and the bugs! Wow, are there a lot of gross bugs here! The difference in food options has been surprisingly difficult. Produce section is hit or miss. Good avocados are hard to come by. That is a staple in California. Good sourdough bread is hard to find. Farmers markets and stands are nice in the summer but winter is tough.
4) After witnessing climate-change from a firsthand perspective, how have you changed your zero-waste ways? What are some habits you've mastered and others that you're working to improve? We are being very mindful with building our new home and what materials we are using. We plan on planting gardens and growing some of our own food and preserving it for the winter months. Having lived in rentals for the past almost two years, we have gotten by with the bare minimum in terms of personal belongings. Most of our things from California are still in storage. It has really shown us how little we really need to be happy. We will continue to live by - if you don't use it, or it isn't sentimental, we don't need it. Our goal is for this home to be a safe refuge for years to come for family and friends.
5) Anything else you'd like to share with us? It was hard to break the news to our friends. Most of them were supportive but did not really understand our reasoning. I forwarded them the New York Times article and they weren't as alarmed as I was. I feel like I'm shouting to them about the impending doom and they continue to ignore the warning signs. The threat of the "Big One" (the long overdue earthquake), drought, fires and now scientists are predicting catastrophic flooding. I hope they all get out unscathed.
PS The above photos are borrowed from NPR, CBS and other news outlets