Fred Brill: Uninhabitable?

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Many Northern Californians are asking themselves if this is the new normal, do I want to stay here? Fred Brill is one of them.

I’m absolutely awestruck by the families who’ve been devastated by fire, flood or hurricane. Even after losing everything, so many choose to rebuild their homes … their lives.

I put myself in their shoes and think about family and friends nearby. I wouldn’t want to abandon them.  Maybe the events are a one-off. I can withstand anything nature throws at me. Or can I? I take a deep breath of suffocating smoke and consider how I’ll know when it’s time to pack up, and get the hell out of Dodge?

Environmental change occurs incrementally, and I wonder if I’m like that proverbial frog who doesn’t realize the pot of water he’s in is starting to boil until it’s too late to hop on out of there.

I moved to Berkeley from Chicago because it seemed a more hospitable place to live. I love the outdoors, the moderate temperature. I was tired of shoveling snow and living indoors half the year. But things are changing here and it’s more than my fear of earthquakes that troubles me. How many more seasons of drought, fire and smoke am I willing to endure?


Those of privilege are starting to slip out of town. It’s too soon to call it a mass migration, but there's an infestation of California license plates overwhelming neighboring states. My wife and I were those people who headed north when the sky turned orange and the sun didn’t rise. We made it to Idaho and traded knowing looks with other clear sky chasers. And when the smoke billowed into Boise, we headed to Utah until the skies cleared. Because we could.

But for many, there’s no place to run. The smoke is everywhere, and most of us live without air conditioning. So what do I do when it’s 90 degrees inside, and I can’t open the windows because the smoke’s so thick I can cut it with a knife? What will it take for me to realize that maybe my home is no longer habitable?

With a Perspective, I’m Fred Brill.

Fred Brill is regional director of a nonprofit that connects children to nature through visits to national parks.