In the Western Land of Disaster

A wildfire blasted through the city of Santa Rosa faster than most people can believe. We can smell the smoke here in San Francisco, where the air quality has often become unhealthy in the past week and a half (note: air pollution this bad is very rare for San Francisco). My in-laws in Santa Rosa are safe and their homes are intact, but many are not so lucky.

(I have yet to hear about my in-laws in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, though we would probably know by now if they were dead or seriously injured. I know they are patriotic, pro-independence Puerto Ricans, but I wonder if life has become so rough in Puerto Rico that they will decide to leave).

One of the most shocking aspects of this fire is that it has devastated a city, not just some rural area in the hills (of course, the rural people in the hills feel like the rest of California does not get a shit about them when they lose their homes – or at least, my cousin who lost a home to a wildfire about ten years ago feels that way). About a hundred years ago, large fires in USA cities were common – just about every major USA city which has been a major city for at least a hundred years has been destroyed by fire at some point. However, we have begun to feel that we are ‘safe’ in cities, and the Santa Rosa fire shows us that we are not.

Climate change is most likely increased the odds of a disaster like this, but it could have happened even without climate change. There was the 1964 Henley Fire which was smaller, but one of the reasons it did less damage to homes (and killed no people) was that the population of the Santa Rosa area was much smaller in 1964 than today. My mother is of the opinion that homes should not be rebuilt in wildfire zones, but that raises the question of where the people who live in wildfire zones should go, especially considering the high cost of housing in California.

However, there are people who say that, due to climate change, it is the individual’s best interests to leave the west coast of North America because the American West is going to burn. Indeed, when my mother talks about why some particular place is not a good place to live, she becomes defensive about her choice to set her roots in San Francisco. Since I already have roots here, I feel it makes sense for me to stay, but if I did not have any existing ties to San Francisco, I probably would not choose it as my residence. Everywhere is going to have problems because of climate change, but if I was thinking about moving to a place which would have the least bad impact from climate change in North America, I would probably look to the Great Lakes region.

As I am writing this post, the air quality is still unhealthy. It reminds me of how the wildfires were messing with the air quality in the Pacific Northwest this summer. As I was in smoky Vancouver, I was thinking about how the air would be clean in San Francisco, and how odd it was that Washington and Oregon were having much more severe wildfire problems than California. I guessed I called that one too early.

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