For Some California Residents, Latest Wildfires Are A Tipping Point

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 7:14 pm

Tens of thousands of people are still under mandatory evacuation in Northern California. Some have endured wildfires, smoke, floods, blackouts and evacuations many times before. Even though the state's population is predicted to top 40 million this year, some wonder whether California is the dream they had hoped for.

Just a few weeks ago Philip Van Gelder's biggest chore was clearing crusty mud and debris from his land. He and his wife live on an idyllic property nestled among vineyards and rolling hills in the tiny town of Geyserville, a few hours north of San Francisco. Last winter, record-breaking downpours turned the town into an island.

"We've been through several flood situations there," said Van Gelder, a white-haired 74-year-old with a trim beard and a camouflage baseball cap. "This was the worst we've seen in 40 years."

He and his wife watched water creep toward the front porch of their green wooden cottage. Finally, when the top step of their porch disappeared underwater, they evacuated. They lost fruit orchards, a woodshop and an art studio.

"We'll be cleaning up from that flood for the rest of our lives," said Van Gelder.

The property was just starting to look normal a week ago when he heard explosions in the wee hours of the morning. Hot gusty winds shook the windows. Wildfire raged through surrounding hills. Firefighters warned his family that flames could level the town. His neighborhood was under a mandatory evacuation.

Van Gelder promised officials he would remain vigilant, but he refused to abandon his land. He and his wife weathered a few smoky days without electricity or gas. Then ferocious winds picked up again over the weekend.

"The hills exploded in flames," Van Gelder said. "The house was surrounded by soot and ash blowing everywhere."

The couple snapped into action. They raced to their car with their cat, a few guitars and key documents. The husband and wife are now staying with their daughter a few hours south in Oakland. Van Gelder says he can't relax. He questions his future in California.

Philip and Sherry Van Gelder are two of the tens of thousands of people under mandatory evacuation in Northern California. They are sheltering with their daughter in Oakland while firefighters fight wildfire near their home two hours north.
Courtesy of Darcy Vasudev

"I think the climate is definitely becoming extreme," he said.

He's not alone. Two years after wildfires in Santa Rosa chased her from her home, Danielle Bryant feels as though she is still running for her life.

"We were victims to one of the most terrible events in history," says Bryant, a tall 38-year-old with short silver hair.

Flames decimated her neighborhood and killed 44 people. The next year, a few hours away, the Camp Fire killed more than 80 people.

"It feels very scary," said Bryant. "I just don't know where home is right now."

Last weekend at dawn, sirens woke Bryant and her husband again.

"My heart was racing. I couldn't think. I felt very on guard," Bryant recalls. "I tried to put myself into action but also I felt frozen."

They hit a fog bank of smoke as they were driving away from their temporary apartment, which is less than a mile from their old house. "It looked like we were driving through hell."

Bryant has since lost her appetite. Bad dreams keep her up at night. She and her husband are talking about selling the house they're rebuilding. Construction is way behind schedule.

"Everyone is stretched and stressed because our builder took on too many homes," said Bryant. "There are so many stories about people folding and leaving."

Humor has helped her cope this past couple of years, but it doesn't answer the big question of where to go next. "What place doesn't have fire? Iceland? Vast wide open spaces like the Mojave Desert?"

Leaving also isn't simple. Bryant grew up here. Her aging mother lives nearby. Yet stress and trauma have taxed her marriage, her work and her health. Every day she thinks about relocating. At the same time, she wonders whether it is possible to outrun climate change.

Copyright 2019 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Wildfires in northern and southern California have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. Some have endured wildfires, smoke, floods, blackouts and evacuations many times before. And while California's population is predicted to top 40 million this year, a few people are wondering, might it be time to flee for good? Lesley McClurg from member station KQED explains.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Just a few weeks ago, Philip Van Gelder's biggest chore was clearing crusty mud and debris from his property.

PHILIP VAN GELDER: We've been through several flood situations there. This was the worst we've seen in 40 years.

MCCLURG: In February, record-breaking downpours drenched the vineyards surrounding Geyserville. The idyllic town a few hours north of San Francisco turned into an island. Water crept toward the front porch of Van Gelder's green, wooden cottage.

VAN GELDER: And, you know, we watched it coming up step by step during the day.

MCCLURG: Finally, the top step disappeared. The 74-year-old guitarist lost fruit orchards, a woodshop, an art studio.

VAN GELDER: We'll be cleaning up from that flood for the rest of our lives.

MCCLURG: The property was just starting to look normal. When Van Gelder jolted out of bed last Thursday...

VAN GELDER: The fires were raging through the hills.

MCCLURG: Firefighters warned his family flames could level the town. His neighborhood was under a mandatory evacuation order.

VAN GELDER: And I said, I understand that. I said, I will remain vigilant.

MCCLURG: He and his wife refused to leave the land they'd nurtured for decades. They weathered a few smoky days without electricity or gas. Then ferocious winds picked up again over the weekend.

VAN GELDER: And the hills exploded in flames, and the house was surrounded with soot and ash blowing everywhere.

MCCLURG: Van Gelder and his wife snapped into action.

VAN GELDER: I wasn't panicky or even as emotional as I am now trying to recall this.

MCCLURG: Sheltered at his daughter's house in Oakland, he lowers the bill of his camouflage baseball cap and stares at the floor. He says he can't relax. He questions his future in California.

VAN GELDER: I think the climate is definitely becoming extreme.

MCCLURG: Any ideas of where you might go?

VAN GELDER: No, not really. (Laughter) Well, there's lots of pipe dreams, you might say.

DANIELLE BRYANT: And it's right at the forefront. Where do we go?

MCCLURG: Danielle Bryant lost her house in the Santa Rosa fires two years ago.

BRYANT: We were victims to one of the most terrible events in history.

MCCLURG: Flames decimated her neighborhood and killed 44 people. The next year, a couple hours away, more than 80 people died in the Camp Fire.

BRYANT: It feels very scary. I just don't know where home is right now.

MCCLURG: Last weekend at dawn, Bryant and her husband fled again. They raced out of their temporary apartment. It's less than a mile from their old house.

BRYANT: It was like hitting a fog bank of smoke. It looked like we were driving through hell.

MCCLURG: They landed safely at a friend's house, yet Bryant felt frozen. She's lost her appetite. Bad dreams keep her up at night.

BRYANT: Is this the way it's going to be every year? - apocalypse.

MCCLURG: She and her husband are talking about selling the house they're rebuilding. Construction is way behind schedule.

BRYANT: I just don't know how much more I can take.

MCCLURG: Leaving isn't simple. Bryant grew up here. Her aging mother lives nearby, yet stress and trauma have taxed her marriage, her work and her health. Every day she thinks about relocating. At the same time, she wonders if it's possible to outrun climate change.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Santa Rosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOUMANI DIABATE SONG, "CANTELOWES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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