Wildfires, coronavirus and house prices force residents to ditch the California dream

The cityscape resembles the surface of a distant planet, populated by a masked alien culture. The air, choked with blown ash, is difficult to breathe.

There is the Golden Gate Bridge, looming in the distance through a drift-smoke haze, and the Salesforce Tower, which against the blood-orange sky appears as a colossal spaceship in a doomsday film.

San Francisco, and much of California, has never been like this.

California has become a warming, burning, epidemic-challenged and expensive state, with many who live in sophisticated cities, idyllic oceanfront towns and windblown mountain communities thinking hard about the viability of a place many have called home forever. For the first time in a decade, more people left California last year for other states than arrived.

Monica Gupta Mehta and her husband, an entrepreneur, have been through tech busts and booms, earthquakes, wildfire seasons and power outages. But it was not until the skies darkened and cast an unsettling orange light on their Palo Alto home earlier this week that they ever considered moving their family of five somewhere else.

«For the first time in 20-something years, the thought crossed our minds: Do we really want to live here?» said Mehta, who is starting an education tech company.

It would be difficult to leave. They love the area’s abundant nature and are tied to Silicon Valley by work and a network of extended family members, who followed them west from Pittsburgh. But Mehta says it is something she would consider if her family is in regular danger.

«Yesterday felt so apocalyptic,» Mehta said. «People are really starting to reconsider whether California has enough to offer them.»

This is the latest iteration of the California Dream, a Gold Rush-era slogan meant to capture the hopeful migration of an old nation to a new, rich West. For generations, the tacit agreement for California residents resembled a kind of too-good-to-be-true deal. Live in the lovely if often drought-plagued Sierra, or beneath the beachfront Pacific Coast cliffs, and work in an economy constantly reinventing itself, from Hollywood to the farms of the San Joaquin to Silicon Valley.

But for many of California’s 40 million residents, the California Dream has become the California Compromise, one increasingly challenging to justify, with a rapidly changing climate, a thumb-on-the-scales economy, high taxes and a pandemic that has killed more here than in any other state.

During the course of his term, President Donald Trump has singled out California, a state he lost by 30 percentage points, as an example of Democrat-caused urban unrest, irresponsible immigration policy and poor forest management, even though nearly 60 percent of the state’s forests are managed by the federal government. Several are burning today, with millions of acres already scorched.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has responded specifically in some cases, but in others, he has invoked the California Dream, an adjective attached to no other state. In his January 2019 inaugural address, Newsom warned that «there is nothing inevitable about» that dream.

«And now more than ever, it is up to us to defend it,» he said.

As the state’s climate has shifted to one of extremes, soaking wet seasons followed suddenly by sharp, dry heat and wind, no region has been safe from fire. This year — even before peak fire season has gotten underway — widespread fires have forced evacuations, from San Jose in Silicon Valley to the distant hamlet of Big Creek along the western slopes of the Sierra.

More than two dozen major fires are burning around the state and have consumed a record 3.1 million acres of land, more than 3,000 homes and at least 10 lives. Los Angeles has reported the worst air quality in three decades as a result of fires surrounding that city, already notorious for orange air and seasonal dry cough.

Wine Country is burning for the third year straight, with a number of vineyards lost. Homes have been destroyed far to the south in San Diego County, and more than 200 campers had to be airlifted to safety amid the Creek Fire, still burning hot and fast between Fresno and Mammoth Lakes.

The mountains behind Santa Barbara County, which gave way after being burned bare by the Thomas Fire three years ago, have turned a worrisome gray-brown tinder in recent weeks.

Those slopes, prepared by one of the state’s largest fires in history at the time, slid during rain-saturated mudslides in January 2018. Twenty people were killed in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, sweeping some from inside their foothill homes all the way to the sea.

The mandatory evacuation orders issued then included the home recently bought by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, newcomers to Santa Barbara’s shifting climate.

«Hopefully, this is a wake-up call,» said Anne-Marie Bonneau, who two decades ago left her home in Ontario, Canada, for the Bay Area but misses the clean air and less-fractious political environment beyond the northern border. «What is it going to take for this country to do something about the climate crisis? Millions of people are affected by this.»

She sees what is happening in California as just the beginning of what is to come across the continent.

«As always, California’s sort of on the leading edge,» she said. «We’re always ahead of everybody.»

Kim Cobb is among the climate scientists who, for years, have warned that the consequences of a warming planet will grow more intense, more deadly and more costly over time. But even she has been startled by the scenes unfolding across the West as wildfires rage this summer.

«It’s an entirely different thing to look at this footage and hear the sobbing voices of people who have lost loved ones and property and livelihoods,» said Cobb, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Science. «It’s shocking for us emotionally, as well as for any global citizen who is watching this.»

She is also adamant that on our current trajectory, the worst lies ahead.

«The science couldn’t be any clearer on this point. The links between warming temperatures and these wildfires are clear,» Cobb said. «This is going to get a lot worse. . . . I know that challenges the imagination.»

The fire fallout and the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 14,000 people in California, have provided a kind of CT-scan view of the state and its many inequities.

Accounting for 61% of cases, Latinos comprise the vast majority of the coronavirus victims, an infection rate disproportionately high given that they make up just 35% of the overall state population. Many are the «essential workers» serving food, picking crops and living lives that are not privileged enough to take refuge in the safety of telecommuting.

During the summer, the novel coronavirus and wildfires have revealed much for Californians: who stays safe from fire and disease, who keeps their jobs, who waits at home for a shrinking benefits check, and who has a soft-landing evacuation site or a hard shelter bed.

This is the debit side of the California Compromise. It is an economy, the world’s fifth largest, that is built by government policy and private enterprise to favor the skilled in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the wealthy everywhere else. The rest of California is increasingly a service economy that pays a far larger share of its income in taxes and on housing and food.

Median income in the state is $75,277. The median home price in San Francisco is $1.3 million, nearly twice that of Los Angeles. The state government is doing next to nothing to close the gap.

Three years ago, state lawmakers approved the nation’s second-highest gasoline tax, adding more than 47 cents to the price of a gallon. With home prices skyrocketing along the coast, service workers in particular are moving farther inland from their jobs and into fire country, meaning they are paying far more as a share of their income on fuel just to stay employed.

The taxes raise more than $5 billion in annual revenue for roads and transportation projects. But the sometimes hours-long commutes, with affordable housing so far from job centers, also undermine the state’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2045, an achievement that could alleviate some of the extreme weather.

A poll conducted late last year by the University of California at Berkeley found that more than half of California voters had given «serious» or «some» consideration to leaving the state because of the high cost of housing, heavy taxation or its political culture.

The draw for some, and the magnet that keeps many here, is the state’s breathtaking physical beauty, family history and a liberal political culture appealing to supporters, many of whom in the north are inheritors of a counterculture ethos.

Through legislation or direct action at the ballot box, California voters established the country’s first «sanctuary state» for undocumented immigrants, built from the ground a vibrant justice-reform movement, and committed to some of the boldest environmental protection goals in the country.

In addition, a measure to restore affirmative action to college admission decisions, banned since 1996, is on the November ballot. The legislature just created a committee to study the cost of reparations to racial and ethnic groups the state has historically mistreated. Marijuana is legal. So are hallucinogenic mushrooms in Oakland.

The political gulf once ran between north and south in California, a Bay Area vs. Los Angeles standoff for power and resources. Now the delineation is east and west, including between liberal San Francisco and towns such as Oroville, now threatened by fire.

Sarah and Joey Wilson, a therapist and the owner of a gold mining supply shop, respectively, live 15 minutes from Oroville in Kelly Ridge and are experienced evacuees. But what most bothers them, beyond the frequent fires, is encroachment by the government on their outdoor lifestyles.

Lakes that Joey used to fish are now off-limits. State-erected gates now block public roads he used to drive to access recreational land. And regulations have limited some kinds of gold prospecting, the hobby that supports his business.

«That’s actually probably made us want to move more than something like this,» Sarah Wilson, 45, said of the close-by wildfire flames.

The loyalty to liberal politics serves as an anchor for many of the state’s urban — and most-entrenched — residents. But it has only light, if any, appeal to newcomers or those here specifically for work.

Peter Alvaro has lived in his rent-controlled apartment in the heart of San Francisco since 1999, when he moved from New Jersey for a taste of the city’s famed counterculture.

He knows the fires will only get worse, as they have steadily in the past three years. But Alvaro feels his identity is tied up in the city and in the surrounding nature. He loves raising his two daughters here, going to the beach three times a week and watching the city constantly change around him.

Many of the people leaving San Francisco are tech workers, newly freed from the city they helped make so expensive by the ability to work remotely during the coronavirus outbreak.

«The tech workers weren’t necessarily attached to the city, they came here because there was opportunity,» said Alvaro, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Santa Cruz. «I hope the city can regrow some of the unique character that was lost in the last boom. The fact that young, wealthy adults are fleeing is good for the culture.»

Just after the first fires started last month, Gary Cook and his wife packed their three rescue cats into a rented SUV and drove from Napa to their new home in Idaho. After 18 years in Wine Country, Cook and his wife felt California was not right for them anymore.

It was not the fires, which Cook said were not an issue for him, but the area’s cost of living, high taxes, power outages and political climate. Cook, who recently retired, felt that as a conservative, he no longer had a voice politically in California.

«There were significant changes going on that changed our outlook on the whole California dream,» Cook said.

He said he will miss Napa’s famed restaurant scene. Idaho is laid back, and the people are more aligned with his views, but it is more of a steak-and-potatoes kind of place, he says.

Business is booming for Scott Fuller, who runs a real estate relocation business. Called Leaving the Bay Area and Leaving SoCal, the company helps people ready to move away from the state’s two largest metro areas sell their homes and find others.

Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Idaho are the top four states his clients are buying in, and many tech workers are trying out smaller industry hubs such as Denver, Austin, Phoenix and Seattle.

Since the pandemic began, he also has been helping people move to less-populated areas within the state such as Placerville or Lake Tahoe. But that trend could reverse quickly because of the record wildfire season, which has been burning around those regions.

«For a lot of people, California’s losing its luster,» Fuller said. «For the average person who maybe came out here for the weather, I think they’re saying the trade off is just not worth it any longer.»

It has been hard to locate a place on the map, outside the city centers, where a fire has not cropped up in the past month. Some are burning deep in wilderness, a possible long-term benefit for the health of the forests struggling now for the same scant water supply, and others along costal stretches that have never seen fire in modern history.

Others are haunting the dry foothills where fire — and death — have been commonplace in recent years.

Just a few miles north of Oroville lies the Sierra foothill town of Paradise, having burned to the ground in just hours on November 8, 2018, in a wind-whipped tragedy of historically deadly proportions.

Eighty-five people died, many simply overwhelmed by the sprinting flames as they tried to flee in cars and on foot. The Bear Fire is at Paradise’s door again, with much less there to burn as the city slowly rebuilds.

Now a thick layer of black and white ash covers the streets, sidewalks and shops of Oroville, a city of 15,000 people that swelled by 25 percent virtually overnight with evacuees from the fire in Paradise, also known as the Camp Fire. The fire followed a near-disaster by a year when the Oroville Dam spillways almost failed with the flooding of the Feather River, threatening to inundate the city.

It is difficult today to find an Oroville resident who did not know someone who perished or lost a home in the Camp Fire. Now, amid a pandemic, the fast-moving Bear Fire is forcing new evacuations as it burns northeast of town.

The fire already has wiped out the small town of Berry Creek, which sits just north of Lake Oroville. Just outside of Oroville, police cars block entry to the roads that lead to the lake, which this time of year would normally be abuzz with Jet Skis and motorboats.

But few residents of Oroville, a conservative, roll-with-the-punches kind of frontier place, are discouraged enough to leave California.

More than natural disasters, many residents say it is the liberal overreach of the Democrat-dominated government of their state that has them frustrated. In 2016, Trump won Butte County in a state where he was trounced almost everywhere else.

«California is always going to be California,» said Judy McClure, 69, a retired school librarian.

Rather than leave, she said, she would like to see the government loosen regulations and allow more aggressive forest management to prevent bigger fires.

«There’s too much government,» she said.

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