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Drought, wildfires… Will Californians head off to greener pastures?

Two weeks ago I spent a couple of hours in Paradise, California, where in November 2018 most of the Northern California town was destroyed by the 154,000-acre Camp Fire. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 20,000 structures, mostly homes in the picturesque Sierra foothill community.

On the same morning, I explored nearby Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville. Shasta is the third largest lake in California and a major source of water for people and agriculture. Lake Oroville, besides its major role in water storage and control, generates enough electricity to power 800,000 homes. For a time late last year, the lake was so low its power plant was shut down.

A marina at Lake Shasta, a quarter mile drive from where it would be when the lake was full.

I visited marinas at both lakes. In most cases, I ended up driving on makeshift dirt roads more than 100 feet below the high water line (I believe at Shasta it was 120 feet). At Lake Shasta, one RV park, once at the lakeshore, was at least a mile drive away from the water. It’s scary to think of what’s ahead if the drought continues, which is likely.

I was in Northern California on my way by car from Seattle to a family reunion farther south, and had only half a day to visit these three places. But it was enough to get a sense of what was going on.

A week later I reached my destination in California’s Central Valley, south of Fresno, where evidence of the drought and fire damage was also apparent — dying orchards here and there (but not as many as I would have thought) and fallow ground where row crops might be grown. In the Sierra Nevada between Shaver and Huntington lakes, the huge 379,000-acre Creek Fire of 2020 wiped out much of the forest. I spent several summer vacations at Huntington Lake as a child. Seeing the now-devastated forest was heartbreaking.

Highway between Shaver and Huntington lakes, until recently a beautiful forest.

In Tulare County, where I stayed, many homes were without water, their wells run dry, probably permanently unless their owners cough up $10,000, $20,000 or more to have them drilled deeper. Few can afford that.

My main interest was Paradise

I wanted to see how many of the residents who lost homes were rebuilding, and how many were living in RVs. I have a theory that countless California residents will leave the state soon because of fire danger (high fire insurance premiums will drive many away). According to CNBC, more than 360,000 moved out of state in 2021. I wonder how many bought RVs to live in elsewhere.

RVs in Paradise in what appeared to be a new RV park.

I lived near Paradise for about 25 years, and visited many times. It was a beautiful town, most of the homes in a pine forest. It pretty much lived up to its name.

It’s far different now. You can easily spot where homes were destroyed — you see driveways leading nowhere and an occasional fireplace chimney. Swimming pools, abandoned at the back of now-vacant lots, suggest happier times. A toddler’s tricycle lay discarded in front of one property where a home once stood.

BELOW: One view of a future Paradise as envisioned by recovery planners. (Click to enlarge.)

What I observed

I drove around, not stopping to talk to anybody. I just wanted to see with my own eyes how the city was recovering and how people were living. There was some construction of new homes, but few and far apart. Very often, from what I observed, residents had purchased manufactured homes rather than rebuild a traditional one. And, as I suspected, some displaced residents were living in RVs, mostly fifth wheel trailers.



As you may recall, many years ago as a college student, I worked summers fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service. I am still able to recognize a dangerously dry forest — one that could go up in a flash. That’s what I saw in Northern California. It was, plain and simple, scary!

If I lived in a fire-prone area of California (and that’s much of the state), considering what has happened in the last few years, I would be selling my home about now and moving somewhere safer. Given my love of RVs, and given the comfort of today’s fifth wheel trailers, I believe I would be seriously considering buying a fifth wheel and heading off to a place not prone to natural disasters (getting harder to find all the time). If a wildfire or dangerous storm were on the radar, I’d pack up, roll off down the highway, and return later at the sound of the all-clear alert.

P.S. I realize similar drought conditions and fire dangers exist in other states, not just California. My observations here, therefore, could apply just as well to people who live in many areas dealing with extreme weather and living conditions.

##RVT1057

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saltwatersue
9 days ago

Unfortunately, they’re coming to TEXAS, too! Where we used to have trees, we now have houses and more lanes on freeways than anywhere in the country. I no longer want to live in or near my hometown! 😔

Randy
11 days ago

Don’t move to CO. This state is rapidly becoming Californi*****. All of the complaints registered in the comments here re: CA also apply today in CO. We already have the same ideology, same problems and same politics of CA. It is only a matter of time until CO looks and behaves exactly like CA.

Randy D
11 days ago

California native here. I’m 63. Three of four of my grandparents were born there.

Much of what California is now was created by the now horrible California government.

California says, “move here”, “visit here,” and more. Yet electricity has been an issue for years. They don’t have enough. They also don’t have enough water.

California tears down power plants and has a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality. They only want power (electricity) generated in other states. Yet when those states need their electricity on hot days, California gets cut off and has the (now routine) rolling blackouts. One can actually look at a list which shows how close your address is to the next blackout.

California sells valuable underground aquafers in the Central Valley to the politician’s rich friends, then they turn around and buy that water back at elevated prices the consumer must pay. They’ve also encouraged horrible farming such as almonds. Each almond takes one gallon of water to grow.

Tom
10 days ago
Reply to  Randy D

Almonds do take about a gallon of water, beef takes about twice that. Want to eat? CA is a desert we don’t need green lawns.

Susan J Lundquist
10 days ago
Reply to  Tom

True, anything that we eat takes water and allowing unlimited numbers of homes to be built, without providing first for water (and transportation) is truly a crime against future generations. Remember that the Central Valley growers planted trees despite long standing agreements to only plant row crops (that can be fallowed during drought). The valley floor has is subsided every year and those lost aquifers can never be replenished. Additionally, we should try to stop runoff and reintroduce it into the ground way more than we do.

Virginia
11 days ago

No doubt we are seeing weather changes and the devastating results as never before. There are also a lot more of us now than when people first rushed out west to “greener pastures.”

People are building homes so close to the ocean that they literally slide into it! People build in certain areas in spite of the dangers known — as can be attested to by the need to furnish special insurance to satisfy mortgage and insurance companies!

Whether we blame it on climate change or over-population, the finger of blame still points back to us.

What if our local governments actually prohibited us from building a house on a flood plain? Or 2 feet from the ocean? For our own good? There would be an outrage! Talk all you want about caring for the environment: few actually walk the talk.

The same motivation that first drove those folks to CA for gold is what drives us today; and the “land we love” is NOT the focus.

Joe Dobry
12 days ago

Chuck,
Nice and interesting observations about California, now how about the situation in Seattle?

Tim
12 days ago

How ironic that so many people moved to CA because of the drought/dustbowl in the mid-west almost a hundred years ago.
Now it is the opposite.

Sheila Getty
12 days ago

They have done it. Meaning, Californians have moved already. I live in Missoula, MT. Have for 45 years. Since the pandemic, wildfires, and telecommunications many, many have moved to Missoula. We are bursting at the seams. It’s horrible. I’ve lived here for 45 years. We were cozy, sweet and happy. It’s a nightmare living here now. Our infrastructure cannot handle the influx.
What can a person do?
Sheila G
MT

Susan J Lundquist
10 days ago
Reply to  Sheila Getty

Have been watching Missoula become California for decades. Family that grew up in the valley have been priced out of the area because of the unbelievable growth.

Mia
13 days ago

I am a native Californian and have lived here 60 years. The main reason that California got so horrible is overpopulation. Everyone.. from all over the world moved here. Everywhere is incredibly crowded. I haven’t flown the coop yet,but of course everyone is fleeing! There is no water and scary fires.
It’s too late to change climate change,so and sorry to report everyone is scatttering…

Les
13 days ago

Chuck, where did you live when you lived close to Paradise?

Sorry to hear you didn’t make it right up the road to Plumas county where the Dixie fire consumed a million acres last summer. It was about 30% of the county and almost all the town of Greenville. Fortunately, no fatalities. The year before it was the north complex fire, responsible for 9 deaths in the Berry Creek area. The year before that was the Minerva fire, close to devouring the town of Quincy.

Plumas county is 70% federal lands. Lack of appropriate oversight and diminished precipitation have created catastrophic wildfire conditions of historical proportions.

It is still based on reaction instead of proaction.

LauraC
12 days ago
Reply to  Les

That’s what happens when you put the federal government in charge of something (like federal land management). They’ve been politically correct instead of responsible in the management of the forests under their control. The more people living in or near the forests, the more management they require. Pandering to the greenies has put the people in danger. Selective forestry and replanting schemes would solve the problem, but noooooooo. We have to pretend people are bad and letting nature take her course is good, so this is what we get—rampant fires, displaced people and a government that perseverates. We left California years ago and never have looked back.

Dmin
11 days ago
Reply to  LauraC

The National Environmental Protection Act, AKA NEPA, allows citizens of all stripes and groups, to comment on, obstruct and even sue the Forest Service and other land management agencies who propose the management you mention, including selective cuts, controlled burns, etc. It’s meant as way for the public to oversee gov’t management but it also stalls forward progress towards managing public lands. Talk to a land manager, you may be very surprised to know what they would like to do on public lands. Land management plans are available at all public land offices. We need more people supporting their actions rather than stopping them. Former Tahoe NF employee. We left CA in 2005 to be close to my Dad in his last years in upstate NY. We always thought we’d move back, but we remain where there is plentiful water, not as many people and few fires.

Diane M
13 days ago

They’re already fleeing California, and unfortunately, a lot of them are coming to Tennessee.

Randy D
11 days ago
Reply to  Diane M

My wife and I fled from being lifetime residents to TN. Love it here in the TriCities area! We’re ‘red’ too.

But we come here with our retirement pensions, health insurance and we do not rely on the government for anything. We are also active in our community and help more than we did in CA.

Last edited 11 days ago by Randy D
Mike Waller
13 days ago

There are many reasons, beyond forest fires that people are exiting California, Having lived there for 30 years myself, I was happy to leave as taxes, housing costs, weird and crazy regulations and laws are all behind me. Water has been an issue for 30 years in California and LA has created most of he issues by trying to buy all the rights in the Owens Valley. I now live in the PNW and have zero regrets about leaving California nor do I have any plans to go back.

Marie Beschen
13 days ago
Reply to  Mike Waller

I completely agree, unfortunately. I too lived in Southern CA for most of my life and saw it go down hill until I could no longer tolerate it and left. Sad to watch.

Janet
12 days ago
Reply to  Mike Waller

Mike, you are so correct. I’m 70 and my husband is 75. We’re both native northern Californians. I used to love living in California, but for all the reasons you mention and more, I’d love to move to almost any other state – or even another country. We live in a small private community (about 2,500 rooftops about 40 years old) that used to be pretty rural, but housing developments are quickly encroaching on our quiet lifestyle. Ten Thousand homes advertised as “affordable living”, yet start at $650,000. They aren’t even attractive. Cheaply built, no yards, crammed together – you could pass sugar between kitchen windows (no joke), and all look alike. I hate it, but couldn’t get my husband to budge. Good for you for escaping.

Silas Longshot
13 days ago

Fires. Drought. Shaky power grid / rationing coming. Insane taxes. Insane policies. Homeless everywhere. $800,000 ‘median house prices’! Thousands of farms wiped out. 300,000 bailed this year? How about half a million exiting per year in another year or two. Just remember how you voted that resulted in why you left.

Randy D
11 days ago
Reply to  Silas Longshot

Yup!

MattD
13 days ago

Great article Chuck, very thought provoking. Makes me ponder the future of CA and the rest of the country, for that matter.

Joan Richardson
13 days ago

I agree. I was born and raised in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate bridge. I live in AZ, now. I am, and have been workamping, for three season’s, in the summer in Klamath, CA. I feel very safe here (the only place in CA) because the redwoods don’t burn! I’m told if the bark is healthy it won’t burn. Enjoy your summer wherever you are.

Heather
12 days ago

Hey Joan, keep thinking those good thoughts for the Redwoods & Sequoias where you live because what happened in Kings Canyon Nat. Park proves that yes, Redwoods can burn when the fires are abnormally intense, which has sadly been the norm in CA lately. The Emerald Triangle is not immune from the same.

ELocke
12 days ago

As you’re driving through north of Trinidad, look to the East you will notice some snags . That was from a fire that started inland and burned 100,000 acres to the ocean . In the 90s I was on a fire in Marin County that started inland and burned to the ocean . The Klamath area has had large fires in the past also .

Bob M
13 days ago

When I was in the Air Force around 1975 thru 1977 California was a beautiful place. I was offered a job there twice afterwards and turned it down. Boy am I glad I did. I feel sorry for those who went thru the fires. I agree with some you get what you vote for. In Pa we have lots of water, beautiful country, high taxes, bad roads and crooked politicians. At lease we get lucky and after a while some of of them end up in jail. I had a well drilled last fall 225’ deep with 60’ casing cost me $4012 just for the drilling in the Pocono’s on my lot/campsite.

Bob S
13 days ago

We spent last summer touring Oregon, the most beautiful state we’ve seen so far. By the time we left, we realized how lucky we were to see it when we did. The lack of moisture and abundance of wildfires was striking. How much longer before it looks like Paradise Valley?
This year we are in Gardiner Montana for the summer. The floods last week devastated the roads inside & around Yellowstone NP, as well as several small town economies. The recovery efforts will be measured in years. We talked with locals who have lived here 40+ years, they have never seen anything like this.
No matter what you believe the cause is, it’s undeniable that the weather is getting worse every year. It is a race for us to see as much of the beauty as we can while it is still here.

LCandreva
13 days ago

I live near Shasta Lake and we are all very upset. Many wells are going dry, no irrigation for cattle and farms allowed, and the price of hay is about $30+ a bale. Most of those homeowners didn’t rebuild because they didn’t have homeowners insurance, now because of the fires our insurance rates have more than tripled.

Home prices, gas price is enough for any young couple to move out of state. I see housing prices aren’t really cheaper in other states.

I grew up in Southern California when it was open and beautiful. Droves, and droves of people came from other states after the wars. How many siblings, cousins, uncles, parents do you know that moved to California? Maybe they’ll go home? I wish.

Heather
12 days ago
Reply to  LCandreva

Yes, seeing how low Lake Shasta has gotten is terrifying & seeing rich bozos in their mini-yachts still trying to fish in its left-over puddles is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

B N S
13 days ago

These comments show that Educated people are actually “Waking Up” to what the State Of California truly is….

friz
13 days ago

Sorry to say but the sun is setting on the Golden West of my youth. I would think a lot of people will be moving on down the road.

David Purvis
13 days ago

Thanks as always for your insights Chuck. I live in Chico and have been a resident of Butte County for many years. I also was a student at CSUC and worked part time for CDF. I have over twenty plus years as a volunteer fireman with Butte County Fire. Living through the fire with family who lived in Paradise was a traumatic experience. In addition we lost a rental house in Paradise. My wife and I have looked for other places to live, and continue to look. Grandchildren pose a significant problem for relocation. So we will remain for the time being. The impacts from the Camp Fire and last year the Dixie Fire have been a burden on the local area. Traffic, homeless issues, construction demands on labor and materials, demand for services are just a few of the impacts on the area. I have purchased a fifth wheel hence my membership with RVtravel for several years now. Not to get into politics but we are burdened and ready for a change. You have hit the issue on the head,

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