Climate Reality Clashes With California Dreams

Philip and Sherry Van Gelder in Oakland, where they're staying with their daughter. (Darcy Vasudev)

Thousands of people remain under mandatory evacuation orders in Northern California. Some have endured wildfires, smoke, floods, blackouts and evacuations many times. Now, even though the state’s population is predicted to top 40 million this year, some are wondering  whether California is the dream they'd hoped for. 

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 community into an island. 

“We’ve been through several flood situations there,” said Van Gelder, a 74-year-old musician. “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. When the top step disappeared underwater, the couple fled. They lost fruit orchards, a woodshop and an art studio. 

“We’ll be cleaning up from that flood for the rest of our lives,” Van Gelder said. 

Sponsored

The property was 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 the surrounding hills. Firefighters warned his family that flames could level the town. Authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation for his neighborhood. 

Van Gelder refused to abandon his property, though he told officials he would remain vigilant. He and his wife weathered a few smoky days without electricity or gas, before ferocious winds picked up again.

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

They raced to their car with their cat, a few guitars and some 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.

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

Climate change did not, by itself, cause the Kincade Fire or the winds that propelled it. But it has increased the risk of wildfire in California and throughout the nation, along with the rapid spread of those fires when they do start.

Still Running

Two years after wildfires in Santa Rosa chased her from her home, Danielle Bryant feels as if she's still running for her life. 

The fire, which killed 44 people, consumed her neighborhood, including her house. The next year, a few hours away, the Camp Fire killed more than 80 people. 

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 recalled. "I tried to put myself into action but also I felt frozen.”

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

Since then, Bryant has 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,” she said. “There are so many stories about people folding and leaving.”

She says a sense of humor has helped her cope. But at the same time, she said, “It feels very scary. I just don’t know where home is right now."

Every day she thinks about relocating. The stress and trauma have taxed her marriage, her work and her health. But leaving would not be simple. Bryant grew up here. Her aging mother lives nearby. And moving is no guarantee of safety. 

 "What place doesn’t have fire?" she said. "Iceland? Vast wide open spaces like the Mojave desert?” 

Is it possible, she wonders, to outrun climate change?