When I was a college sophomore, a significant portion of my campus burned down. A fast-moving fire began on the ridge above the school, in Santa Barbara, California, and swept down the hillside in an instant, propelled by 70-mile-an-hour sundowner winds. It all happened so quickly that nearly the entire student body ended up stranded in the cinderblock gym overnight as flames consumed many of the classrooms, dorms, and faculty homes around us.
That smoky night I spent trapped in a school gym was in 2008. In the years since, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in fast-moving, high-intensity fires across the state, fueled by climate change. I’ve been evacuated three times from various parts of California, and I’ve been put on evacuation warning a dozen times more. Every summer, I kept my passport, Social Security card, and external hard drive in a go bag by the door in case I needed to get out fast.
The last time I was evacuated, during the 2018 Ferguson Fire in Yosemite National Park, I knew I had had enough. I’d loved living in California—I was born and raised in the Golden State. But huddling next to my air filter in my cabin in Yosemite, as the fire spewed noxious smoke just a few miles down the road, I reflected on the string of fires that had put me in similar situations in recent years. I finally realized: This is no way to live.
Others are having the same realization. “Across the United States,” writes Abrahm Lustgarten in the New York Times, “some 162 million people—nearly one in two—will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water.” For that reason, Lustgarten believes that “a great domestic relocation might be in the offing.” A study published in 2018 by the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, suggests that nearly 10 percent of Americans in the South will migrate north and west in the next 45 years due to climate change impacts. What strikes me about these reports is the use of the future tense. Many of us are already experiencing precipitously declining environmental quality and have been for years. Some of us are already on the move because of it. Take it from me—I’m a climate change migrant. In the wake of the Ferguson Fire, I didn’t just muse about moving due to climate change. I started planning my escape. And then I packed my bags and left.
I’m not alone—many people have already begun to factor climate change into their decisions about where to move and when. “I left the Florida Keys out of fear that they won’t exist long term,” says Lindsay Stevenson. She moved in 2015 because she figured Florida, with its rising sea levels and intensifying hurricane seasons, was not a safe place to put down roots. Stevenson moved out West, eventually landing in the Sierra Nevada. Now, she and her husband are contemplating another move, thanks to the constant threat of fire and the complications of home ownership in such a high-risk area. “We want to have our own property,” she explains. “Seeing all my friends here that own homes lose their insurance, or lose their homes, has made it very real that it’s going to be hard to be here long term, and financially difficult because of the cost of insurance, if you can even find someone to insure you.” Yes, there are other factors at play in their decision, such as overall cost of living. But “where we go is definitely climate-driven,” she says.
For others, climate change factors into career decisions. Sarah Carter left her job at Death Valley National Park in California for a promotion at Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming, where she and her partner had previously lived. The job was the primary factor in the couple’s decision to relocate, but climate change dictated the timing. “I wasn’t really ready to leave Death Valley,” Carter says. But she loves snowshoeing and skiing, and was worried about what Jackson’s warming winters would mean for those activities in the future. “I had this feeling that if we don’t go back [to Jackson] now, if we go back in five years, will it be like what we remembered?” she says. “I have this sense of urgency that winter is going away.”
Others are choosing where to live in the first place based on climate change. Fire danger is shaping the grad school application process for Emily Mata, a recent college graduate residing in Santa Barbara. She suffers from asthma, which means that smoke from wildfires has serious health consequences that can disrupt her daily life. “I would really love to apply [to graduate programs] all over the place, but now I’m thinking I don’t want to apply anywhere west of Colorado,” she says. “I am just starting to come to terms with the fact that because of my particular set of worries with my asthma, an East Coast location, especially if that’s where I’m going to be long term, is probably going to be the best place for me.”
Although relocations can be difficult, it requires a certain level of privilege to be a climate change migrant in America right now. Most of the people I spoke with are relatively free to move around, without the ties of children or home ownership, and with enough money to afford to relocate. For homeowners, parents, or people living paycheck to paycheck, it’s harder to pack up and move just to escape the smoke or to enjoy long, snowy winters for a few more years. John Woolman, for example, owns a home in the Sierra foothills and is staying put—at least, for now—even in the face of constant fire danger and weeks of heavy smoke each year. “If you have property in California that you already own free and clear, you might be a little bit more hesitant to pick up and move,” he says. Plus, he’s not sure his house would sell even if he did want to go. “I’ve seen properties in the foothills be on the market for months, maybe even years,” he says, which he attributes to the high cost of homeowners insurance in the area along with the constant threat of fire.
Besides, moving doesn’t truly offer an escape from the planetwide problem of climate change. As former California Gov. Jerry Brown recently asked Californians considering leaving the state due to climate change, “Tell me: Where are you going to go? … There are going to be problems everywhere in the United States. This is the new normal.” But the new normal is more extreme in some places than others.
That was clear to me as I considered where to move. I researched climate change impacts occurring now, and those projected for the future. I already knew I wanted out of the fire- and drought-prone West. Coastal areas, which are at risk of sea-level rise and hurricanes, were also out. I landed on Western North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains, safe from most extreme climate events life hurricanes and fires—for now. So for the first time, I’m not packing a go bag as California burns. Meanwhile, my family back on the West Coast is feeling the apocalypse. My parents can’t go outside due to the unhealthy air quality. Two sets of my cousins in Oregon have been evacuated, and my sister is on evacuation warning. I feel deeply for my friends and family. But more than anything, I feel relieved—I got out just in time.