The California dilemma: should we stay or leave?

Perhaps while you are reading this, the sky is blue and clear. Ash is no longer drifting, the memory of the late day orange sky looming over the Bay Area is fading and the glorious October weather has arrived. Maybe you can almost forget the hellish landscape of August and September, the weeks of heat and smoke, and the purple air quality. Or maybe, right now, another fire has broken out and we’ve all been taken back to the house. As I write this, it is impossible to know.

My husband and I moved from New York City to San Francisco in 2008, during the financial meltdown that ushered in the Great Recession. It was an anxious and unnerving time, but we embraced the West Coast, with its months-long heirloom tomato season, hiking trails, and sense of adventure. In 2010, we rode an Airstream trailer from Los Angeles to Big Sur. Basically, the peak of California.

The 2016 fire season is the first I remember clearly: the rush to get the masks, the buzz of the air filters running 24/7 in our home, the compulsive checking of the quality index of the air. We drove with our young children to Tahoe for three days, where the crisp, pristine air was like something out of Middle-earth. I swallowed it so greedily that my lungs hurt. When we got back to San Francisco, the mist had cleared. OK, we thought. We can do it.

Four seasons of fires later, the relentless adaptability of Bay Area residents – buying filters, masks and generators, crouching for days on end, looking for clean air to drive to (except for this summer when there’s no it was in no direction) – it’s starting to feel less like California resilience and more like magical thinking.

For the first time, many Californians are asking: How do you really know when it’s time to leave? When do positivity and adaptability fall into illusion?

A satellite image of California taken on August 20 shows the fires and smoke that have led some to reconsider whether to live here SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 20, 2020: Satellite view of California, USA, wildfires.  (Photo by Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon)

The California dream has always been built on a pinch of disappointment: the idea of ​​being able to extract wealth from the soil, the belief that you can irrigate the desert. That tension is inherent in what it means to live here, perched precariously on fault lines, trying to understand the boundary between risk-taking and insanity.

The internet is ablaze with the “California is Over” versions of the story, noting the high cost of living, the housing crisis, heat waves and wildfires. But these stories often don’t get to the heart of what so many people are struggling with now: that it’s hard to really think about leaving when there are still valid reasons to stay.

“As soon as we get a bit of green air, I think, nah, we’re good to go,” says Lisa Trottier, a senior copywriter at a technology company who lives in Berkeley with her husband and their two teenagers. “When the smoke was at its worst, I was on a chain of messages with friends talking about moving to Duluth, Minnesota. Then, after two hours of sunshine and clean air, everyone is like, f— Duluth.”

But as he considers places to move, he also finds himself immediately discarding them for his own problems: rising seas, Lyme disease, bad food, long winters. “I became a Bay Area greenhouse flower,” says Trottier. Despite flirting more seriously than ever, he thinks it will take a few more years before he actually uproots his family.

For others, the risk of fires, the health impact of annual smoking, and days stuck indoors with closed windows made it difficult to justify the cost of living in the Bay Area. “I told my husband: ‘We are moving,'” says Megan, who lives in Marin and asked to use only her name as her husband has not yet told his employer that they are moving. “At first he fought me, but 24 hours later he was on my side.”

The turning point for her husband – who grew up in Marin and wanted to raise his children there – was driving back from Home Depot and being unable to see Mount Tamalpais through the smoke. For Megan, there was also the fear that a fire from the north would force an evacuation of Marin with only two ways out, through the Golden Gate or the San Rafael-Richmond bridges. “If I thought our government or the world was doing something about climate change, I would probably think, ‘OK, let’s see what happens,'” he says. “But nobody is doing anything.”

The couple are moving to Bozeman, Mont., With their two young children, hoping the fires aren’t that bad and that the lower cost of living means that if they have to pick up and relocate again, it’ll be easier next time.

Mariko Grady (left) and Kana Weaver (center) help a customer at the Aedan Fermented Foods booth at Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, California on Saturday, September 26, 2020.

Others, however, find valid reasons to stay. Mariko Grady started Aedan Fermented Foods seven years ago, selling traditional Japanese fermented products like koji and miso. During the pandemic he saw an increase in shoppers at his stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “Before, half of all customers were tourists,” he says. “Now they are mostly locals and busier at my stand.”

Grady is part of La Cocina, a nonprofit cooking incubator focused on women of color and those from immigrant communities. At a time when anxiety and stress are high, it feels good to run a business that provides healthy food. He hasn’t heard of other La Cocina entrepreneurs who left the city this year, but some of his favorite market vendors destroyed their farms in fires near Santa Cruz. “I wish there was a way to stop the fires,” he says. For the first time since entering the farmers’ market in 2013, it had to give it up in September due to poor air quality.

Parents are also being hammered. A San Francisco childcare provider, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of his customers, saw firsthand the toll the pandemic and fires have had on families. “With parents, there is confusion, frustration, emotional turbulence,” he says.

Some of her clients have already moved out of town and she worries if she’ll be able to keep her business open as more families choose to leave. “People who are financially independent will adapt,” he says. “They can choose whether to leave or stay. I care about families who don’t have these choices. “

Even for those who are privileged to have options, approaching the decision logically right now is difficult, says Laura Capinas, a clinical social worker in Sonoma who works with children and adults who have suffered trauma. “We are in a global pandemic at the top year after year after year of wildfires,” he says. “There was no chance to recover.”

After months of hypervigilance, our brains haven’t had time to settle down and reset, so we can react in a more emotional or irrational way. “Deciphering between what is a rational decision and what is an irrationally fear-based decision becomes very challenging,” says Capinas. Especially since, right now, a fear-based decision may actually be the rational choice.

In his private study, he noted that among families who have lived here for generations, there is no real talk of leaving. They have deep roots that would be more difficult to cut, no family elsewhere pushes them away. People without that generational link seem more open to transfer.

“After the fires last year, I told my husband, I think I’m done,” says Capinas. “I am a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder, this is what I do, and here we were evacuating again, the embers 400 meters from our house, the sheriff’s sirens arriving at our house at 4 in the morning”. surreal experience of receiving calls from schools and community organizations about families in crisis while packing to escape. Again this week his phone rang without interruption.

“The difficult thing is that this is my husband’s dream. We have come west, we have our house and a small vineyard, we have taken care of every piece of landscape ourselves. Letting go of all this seems like a defeat to him. But then it is also the question, every year, will we even be insured? What is it doing to our health? “

This is a personal calculation, fresh in the minds of many Bay Area residents: how many of these cycles can any of us endure?

Still, if the sky is clear right now and the weather is mild, whether you’re hiking through the Marin Headlands or skimboarding at China Beach or admiring the views from the top of Dolores Park, it’s easy to fall in love with the California dream. from the beginning.

And expect to face the same impossible question and calculations again next year.

Anna Nordberg is a Bay Area writer. Email: [email protected]


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