FEATURE - Wildfires In California Bring Difficult Choices For 'Climate Refugees'

MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 18th September, 2020) When Jennifer Murillo moved from Santiago de Cali, Colombia to California two years ago, she was looking for a more peaceful life away from the political and safety concerns in her home country.

After reuniting with family members in California, Murillo, 28, fell in love and moved into her boyfriend's family house in the rural areas of Vacaville, California about a year ago. The young couple got married earlier this year and were expecting their first child by December.

Unfortunately, the massive wildfires started in mid-August in California disrupted the young couple's plans when their house was burned to ashes on August 18. After experiencing what she described as "the worst day of her life," Murillo said she would never live in the same area again.

"No, I don't think I'll feel safe [to live there again], especially that night was the worst day of my life. I don't think I'll be able to go back," Murillo told Sputnik during a phone interview.

Amid the scorching heatwaves and lack of precipitation during the summer seasons in California in recent years, wildfires became a serious threat to local residents like Murillo and her family. Despite denials from US President Donald Trump, a large number of scientists argued that the growing risks of wildfires in California came as a result of climate change triggered by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

As wildfire swept through large areas of the human inhabitant in California, the devastation turned more and more local residents like Murillo into refugees of the impact of climate change.

"Although we lived in the countryside, you could never imagine you were going to get into a fire. With climate change and all these fires going on in recent years, it's been hard. There's a lot of political debate. But it [the fires] has really endangered the lives of a lot of people," Murillo said.

Since August 15, the wildfires in California have caused 25 fatalities and destroyed nearly 5400 structures, according to the latest daily situation report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The wildfires that destroyed Murillo's house were known as the Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex Fires, which were sparked by massive lightning strikes amid recent extreme heat waves in California.

For Murillo, who was more than five months pregnant at the time, the narrow escape from the fire on August 18 was an eye-opening experience.

"We had small fires on our property in July. But we didn't think the fire would come so close to our house, as the fire was burning on the other side of the lake on Monday. We went to bed around 9pm on Tuesday and were awaken by the smoke around midnight. Grandpa [her husband's grandfather] said he heard noises that sounded like explosions outside. And the fire was already coming through the doors," she said.

Murillo and her husband were living at the house with his grandparents. All four of them rushed into their cars without any time to collect their personal belongings. They drove away as fast as they could.

"It was like 'get out and get into the car!' When we did that, we were like 'we'll come back and get all the stuff later.' I didn't take any additional clothes. It was just whatever I had on me. It was like only three minutes. I wish we could have 10-15 minutes. But it was not possible. We even lost one of our dogs, who ran away when grandma was trying to get her," Murillo said.

Murillo wished local authorities could have warned them more about the dangers of the wildfires.

"We wish we had one of those [warnings]. But nothing. Nobody came to our house to tell us to evacuate. There were no text messages or other warnings," she said.

As Murillo and her family were driving on the only private road leading to their house, they came across firefighters who were trying to direct local residents to safer areas. But after driving for more than two hours, they reached the section of a highway that was blocked by the fire. They had to turn back and find another way out.

"When we were evacuating from the Pleasants Valley, the houses were not on fire at all. But by 2:30 am in the morning, all the houses in the Pleasants Valley were gone. They just kept driving. By about 4 am in the morning, we finally arrived at Christopher's [her husband] friend's home," she said.

After their house was completely burned down during the fire, Murillo and her husband have been staying in the living room of his friend's home for almost one month.

Fortunately, her husband's grandparents had insurance for their house, which could help cover both the hotel rooms the grandparents were staying in and any future expenses on rebuilding the family house.

But for Murillo, she was determined to find a new place to rent with her husband in the nearby city of Fairfield.

"We're not planning to go back to the house, which will take at least one year to be rebuilt. We cannot wait because the baby is coming in December. We're trying to get something in the city. The fires have mostly been in the countryside. In the city, there're no mountains or forests. So there's no problem," she said.

Nevertheless, starting a new life in the city would present new challenges for the young couple who faced financial troubles earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her husband lost his construction job because of the pandemic and had been relying on unemployment payments, which would end by this month. After losing all her gears including cameras and computers, Murillo, who had been working on graphic designs and video production, had not been able to work. Losing their family house also meant they had to cover the additional monthly rent.

With their first baby due to be born by December, the young couple has been desperately looking for new jobs and even started a page on GoFundMe.com to seek assistance from kind-hearted strangers.

According to a new study published by ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, about 93 million people in the United States could experience severe negative changes in the quality of their environment and at least four million of them could be living at the fringe by 2070 because of the impact of climate change.

But some local residents in California remained hopeful that they could work together as a community to face the new challenges from the wildfires without having to relocate.

Kelly Pruden, a coordinator from the Boulder Creek Recreation and Park District, a local a non-profit organization, has been trying to offer assistance to local residents who had been affected by the devastating wildfires that had destroyed almost 1000 homes in Boulder Creek, California.

According to Pruden, most of the residents who were forced to evacuate because of the wildfires have been staying in hotels and temporary rental facilities such as Airbnb. Most of the evacuees were able to stay in those facilities free of charge for two weeks. Those who lost their house during the fires began to look for longer-term rentals as it would take them at least 1-2 years to rebuild their houses.

Nevertheless, Pruden said she would not choose to move away from the area because of possible threats from future wildfires.

"We tend to not have the big California wildfires up in this county. This fire in Boulder Creek and Santa Cruz County is historic. I personally believe this was an eye-opener and the fire lines will be made. I just feel that we will not get another big fire like this in the near future at all," she said.

Pruden believed the local fire department would take sufficient measures to protect the local community from future fires.

"Our fire district has been incredible as far as educating where fire lines should be and how they should be made up. That's gonna be the next step, creating the fire lines and more fire lines should be around. In that way, it doesn't affect so many homes," she said.

She explained that the fire lines could be created by removing dead leaves from the ground and they would become a barrier to prevent the wildfires from spreading quickly.

As this was the first time the local community in Boulder Creek faced this kind of threats from wildfires, there has not been an overwhelming sentiment from the locals who expressed concerns about future wildfires that they would consider moving away, Pruden said.