A Grateful Climate Migrant’s Confession

The frost is on the pumpkin, leaves are on the ground, and our flower beds remind me that beauty is ephemeral; the loveliest blooms droop in brown defeat. I’ve never been a lovely bloom, but gravity continues to have its way with me, and drooping seems to be the watchword this month. I could wallow in morbid reflection … or, I could look up to see the festival of colors romping through the woods that surround us. It’s almost too much; a less sensitive author suggested that the array of leaves in a New England autumn is garish. Well, you can never get enough of too much, this glutton suggests. After years in the sere landscape of southern Oregon, we’re gratefully soaking up these paintbrush days.

Feelings are mixed, however, when we remember the friends we left behind, and more jarringly when we recall climate devastation already changing the landscape in the Rogue Valley. We bought our small farm in 2005 and retired there in 2015. Anticipating our retirement, I kept pictures of the house and the pastures on my desktop from the start, looking forward to settling among orchards thick with pears and amid green hillsides of pine. Our part of the valley produced then the fat pears arriving in gift baskets during the holidays. The local Pear Blossom Festival in April celebrated the blanket of flowering trees at our doorstep. Roses decorated our yard throughout the year. In late July, an acre of blackberries ripened; our dogs learned to snag the ripest without injury. By the middle of August in our first years in Oregon, I had to collect fallen pears and plums on a daily basis before the dogs ate much, much more over-ripe fruit than they could successfully process.

We knew there would be a scalding few weeks in mid-summer, but weeks turned into months in our final years. The pasture stayed green for a while. We pumped in water and sprayed twice a week, but as Oregon’s drought continued, there was little water for irrigation, and we let the field turn to cracked earth. The commercial pear trees survived as the orchards brought lumbering trucks of water in week after week. The local lakes slowly became bare dirt. Wells went dry.

To live in the West is to live with fire. We had been aware of terrible devastation in California, largely confined to wild areas adjacent to forests when we first arrived but increasingly impinging on populated areas by the time we left. The Thomas fire destroyed almost 300,000 acres of the county we had lived in, killing twenty-three people in the blaze and ensuing mudslide. What had seemed regular but isolated incidents of fire became increasingly dangerous. All but one of the ten most destructive fires took place after the year 2000; six of those ten took place in a single year, 2020. Two years earlier California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire, killed eighty-six people, fifty-eight of whom were unable to escape the town of Paradise in Butte County. Pictures of the skeletal remnants of the 18,000 buildings lost in the fire were horrifying. The President visited the ruins, wishing the people of “Pleasure” a speedy recovery.

We had moved to Phoenix, Oregon, half-way between Ashland and Medford by that time, roughly two hundred and fifty miles north of Paradise. As yet in no danger from fire in 2018, the air we breathed brought its own hazards. There had been smoky summers in the past, annoying but generally swept away after a few weeks of negotiating air quality at the hazardous level. My guess is that people living outside the West do not check air quality daily, probably don’t even have a sense of how air quality is measured. The index runs from 0 to 500, divided into bands, each given a separate color. Green indicates ambient air from 0 to 50, — satisfactory, no risk. Yellow from 51 to a 100 is moderate, not great for folks unusually sensitive to air pollution. Orange runs up to 150 and is dangerous for people whose breathing might be compromised. The scale intensifies a bit with red, AQ from 151 to 200, is unhealthy, purple from 201 to 300 very unhealthy, and Maroon at 301 and higher is hazardous.

In the summer of 2018, our air quality was routinely above 150; in the summer of 2020 we lived in the purple zone, recording an AQ high above 350. That summer the Almeida Fire reached us. The town of Phoenix and neighboring town of Talent were destroyed, more than 3,000 buildings lost in a matter of hours. Only those who have seen the distinctive color of smoke from a fire tornado can understand how quickly the fire ate its way north. We saw the smoke, and when we heard propane gas tanks exploding to the south, we grabbed our “To Go Bag”, pushed the dogs into the car and drove to what we thought was safety some miles to the north. As is the case throughout the mountainous West, major roads run from south to north. There are two major roads heading north from Phoenix, one of which was closed as the fire roared. We’d planned for evacuation but hadn’t thought about the number of cars all heading in the same direction. We also had not yet learned that cars caught in a fire tornado are stalled death traps as the oxygen necessary to combustion is sucked from the air. We were able to find an open road, but when we landed at the home in which we would spend the evacuation, word reached us that another fire was heading our way from the north.

We escaped. Our house was untouched. Ravaged properties within ¼ mile lay smoking.

The Alameda fire was terrifying, but in addition to pandemic arriving at the same time, two continuing problems remained: Pears and tourists aren’t keen on heat and drought.

Even when not in fire’s path, smoke from fires throughout the region continue to make ordinary enterprises untenable. The highly regarded Oregon Shakespeare Festival had to move from the lovely open-aired Elizabethan Theater to the local high school’s auditorium; the hordes of tourists visiting southern Oregon stayed home. Pears were affected by the smoke; the holiday baskets that season contained a note apologizing for smaller pears of an unfamiliar color. A region depending on agriculture and tourism began to wither. Pear orchards were razed, replaced by fields of hemp.

Medford cooked at 115 degrees in June, and the region’s water source, Emigrant Lake, held roughly 2% of its full capacity. Our neighbors’ wells ran dry; Jackson County has wells exceeding 800 feet that do not yield water. Lakes in the west have so emptied that land is visible that has not been seen for 2000 years. Salmon are in danger of extinction in the Klamath basin; they are now on the Endangered Species List.

We are climate migrants, abashed at having left behind people about whom we care, but surprised on a daily basis by the confused response we now get when we explain our flight to the Northeast. The New York Times had reporters and photographers on the ground when our small town burned; images of melted buildings were sent around the world. How had fire and drought not communcated crisis? We can’t forget walking in the southern end of our pasture seeing what remained of the Umpqua Bank, the steel vault standing alone in a landscape of ashes.

I’m sitting in our dining room, facing more trees than I can count or identify. It rained this morning, and a mist lingers, softening the tangle of color we walked through yesterday. We are grateful; our views are lovely. Our days are sweet, and yet I no longer believe my grandchild will see the forest that stands before us today. The future was right before our eyes.

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Peter Arango

I’m the author of four novels and America’s Best Kept College Secrets, a retired teacher of the humanities, eclectic reader, and prisoner of popular culture.