West coast fires: from smoke to ashes

A wooden house surrounded by flames in Juniper Hills, California (Keystone / Sarah Reingewirtz)

Along the west coast of the United States, wildfires have continued to wreak record havoc, and this even before what is considered the peak fire season in the region. We have decided to tell you the story of Vincent S., a Swiss national living in the north of San Francisco who has seen the situation deteriorate over the past five years.

A broken dream. It's a little piece of paradise an hour north from the Golden Gate Bridge in Sonoma County. A wine-growing region known for its pinot noir that has the flavour of Burgundy wines. "The climate is fantastic. From the end of April to the beginning of December, we wake up each day to a blue sky," explains Vincent S., a Genevan of Bernese origin. He moved to Healdsburg in 2012 to realize his "dream retirement” with his American wife Robin.

Over the last five years, that dream has been shattered. Climate change has made this hilly and wooded region the prey of flames: every year from mid-September to the end of November, its inhabitants tremble to see their houses and everything they have built over the years eaten away by fire in a matter of seconds.

"There are a lot of hills, sometimes very steep, covered with very dense gigantic forests of pines, sequoias or oaks, which are difficult to access because, here, the undergrowth is not pruned," explains Vincent. When powerful warm air currents rise from the desert areas in the north and blow in a south-westerly direction, the slightest spark is enough to start the fire. "And that’s a disaster because the fires are fanned by winds of 100 km/h. The embers can travel up to 500 metres in the air and reach a hill upstream where another fire starts." The pattern continues, resulting in record figures for the entire West Coast this year: two million hectares burned between California, Oregon and Washington State, nearly 40 dead and billions of dollars in damage.

Sonoma Valley takes advantage of a Mediterranean climate favourable to wine growing (Credit: Anita Ritenour/ Flickr)

Unusual phenomena. Yet the fire season has only just begun; this year the nightmare started much earlier than usual. For the first time, in mid-August, the couple saw huge flashes of heat streaking across the sky. "Northern California experienced three days of dry thunderstorms, a lightning storm that is said to have caused 375 fires, including those between Guerneville and the Ocean." An event so exceptional that the neighbours' daughter, terrified by the rolling thunder, took refuge in her parents' bed thinking war had started.

Fires kicked off in unexpected places and at such an unexpected time that the public services and the fire brigade did not know which way to turn.

Vincent and Robin were spared once again, their home located six kilometres away from the fires ravaging everything in their path. "The west end of Healdsburg was evacuated and other areas prepared, just in case... We housed my sister-in-law for a fortnight. Countless houses burned down around us. Some of our acquaintances lost everything. And this is the continuation of four years of destruction."

This was the case for their French neighbours - he, a very famous chief in the region, and she, a brilliant lawyer whose property is in ashes despite the ardour of the local fire brigade who fought against the flames up to five metres away from their house. But they had to let go: in the region houses are built neither in concrete nor in bricks, but in wood. There is nothing left of it.

A house engulfed in flames in Sonoma County (Keystone/ Noah Berger)

An arsenal of fire-fighting measures. Over the years, Vincent and Robin have doubled their efforts to protect against future disasrers, setting up an arsenal of fire traps. "Everyone has taken defensive measures. We used to store our water from a spring in plexiglas tanks at the top of the hill. To avoid the risk of losing everything in case of fire, we installed 25 sprinklers -of golf courses type- all around the house, connected to a tailor-made 100,000-litre concrete tank." They also cut down a large part of the trees and bushes to create a buffer zone between them and the forest. "Everyone does what they can to protect themselves. We're pretty confident about seasonal fires, but against such fire storms we are helpless."

Insurers on the run. The worse is that insurers are becoming increasingly reluctant to cover these areas. Vincent and Robin saw their household insurance increase from $5,000 to $50’000 per year and for half its initial value. "We had to change insurance twice in five years because they refused to renew our contracts. We signed with the only company that responded to us." A dramatic situation for many homeowners whose mortgages are conditioned to an insurance policy and who find themselves unable to sell their property if they can no longer honour their debts. The one-year moratorium imposed by the State of California on insurance companies that refused to renew their policies in high-risk areas only applies to houses that have already burned down. "People are caught in a vicious circle. If their house hasn't burned down yet, they can't find insurance; if their house has burned down, they don't know where to go."

To make matters worse, with the arrival of Covid-19, the real estate market around San Francisco has taken off: people locked down in the city rush to "lung" properties in the Nappa and Sonoma Valley areas.

Evacuation. Since 2015, every year the couple get themselves ready to lose everything. This year, Vincent has rented a warehouse to store his belongings so he won't be caught off guard. The first year, Vincent and Robin took all their important documents, jewellery carrying sentimental value, their computers, their four dogs and clothes for two or three days. "It was definitely not enough, so the following years we started packing according to our truck’s capacity. The third time, we realised that with more time, we were no longer making rational or priority choices".

What about souvenirs ? "Very quickly we realised that what we were taking away was not really important. Memories are in your head and if you lose your photo album or a painting, it's a shame, but you become a fatalist."

Father and son evacuate their dog as fire ravages Juniper Hills in California (Keystone /Sarah Reingwirtz)

Shelter. In 2019, while Vincent was visiting his children in Europe, Robin was evacuated three times. He returned on the day the house should have burned down "and finally didn't". "We were lucky enough to be welcomed by friends for a fortnight, but those who don't know where to go are referred to shelters in schools, churches...". The fire brigade forces everybody to evacuate so that they do not have to manage the population left behind and concentrate on extinguishing the fires. "Now people are immediately evacuating because they have understood the danger. Until three years ago, many were hiding in their homes thinking it would keep them safe."

Fire information. The whole question for the population is where to find information to locate fires and whether they are affected. More than television, which broadcasts general news on a loop, the local newspapers are the best informed: the Press Democrat and the Sonoma County fire sites. In times of danger, people are also glued to their mobile phones to receive information from the County and the State, which provides information in the event of evacuations. "We receive alerts all the time, even in the middle of the night. A very unpleasant ringtone that drives you crazy... You lose your privacy, even if you know it's to protect yourself."

Climate refugees. Generally speaking, Robin and Vincent's life is now tinged with dull anxiety, surrounded by friends who have lost their homes, with a great sense of insecurity and without knowing where to go if they had to resolve to leave. Not to mention the Covid-19 crisis which continues to rage and the tensions linked to the upcoming elections. "We live in a real paradise. Our bedroom annexed to the house, on stilts, overlooks 30-foot high trees. Our neighbours are birds and squirrels. Robin cultivates her vegetable garden and beautiful rosebushes. The cool nights and morning fogs protect us from the heat... But we are beginning to make mental journeys to alternative destinations."

Where to go? Faced with the prospect of hurricanes in the south, fires on the west coast, and flooded coastal areas, the couple now feel concretely aware of what it's like to suddenly fall prey to global warming. Yet they are among the luckiest, with the financial means to reach warmer climes if needed. "If we didn't have savings - like 40% of Americans who have barely $400 immediately available - we wouldn't be retired and without a plan B, it would be catastrophic."

The fires finally stopped in Sonoma County, spared by the goodwill of the winds. But the season is still long and the uncertainties for them and millions of Americans are being overtaken by the exponential consequences of climate change, the urgency of which is being debated right now in New York City, where Climate Week is being held.