I’m Leaving the West Coast

The fires, smoke, and heat are no longer a fluke, but our future. The time has come for us to flee.

The Portland Steel Bridge covered in smoke from wildfires.
The Portland Steel Bridge covered in smoke from wildfires on September 16, 2020. (Rebecca Smeyne / Bloomberg via Getty)

Portland, Oregon, has its share of gloomy days, so waking up to darkness wasn’t that strange. When I looked outside, however, the sky wasn’t overcast. It was filled with smoke the color of pumpkin spice, the result of nearby fires. A soupy miasma. The most noxious air in the world. I’d had enough. I told my husband, “We need to move.”

Having grown up in California’s Sonoma County, I’ve been spoiled by natural beauty and perfect weather. When I was 30, I briefly lived in New York, but after only six months, I started to miss horizon lines defined by mountains and sunsets, the sweet fragrance of dry vegetation in late summer, silvery oak trees and massive redwoods. I bought a one-way ticket back home. I remember the way the bay looked as my plane descended into San Francisco: glittery, golden, and serene—like a Maxfield Parrish painting I had on my wall in high school. I felt protected on this side of the country, grounded within the boundaries of water and range. I never thought I’d leave the West Coast again.

When I later moved north to Oregon, my new home felt like going back in time to the California of my childhood—one that was a notch cooler. I love the rich dankness of Oregon’s forests, the wet needles underfoot, the ghostly fog that hovers at night, diffusing city lights into colorful blurs.

The weather has started to diminish my love for the West. I’ve made a habit of going home to Santa Rosa every summer but am usually disappointed to be greeted with triple-digit temperatures and hazy air. In 2015, the Valley Fire ripped through California’s Lake County, around 100 miles north of San Francisco and where my family has a summer cabin. Though our cabin was spared, much of the nearby town and residential area was demolished. The hills that were once blanketed in trees are now stubbled with charred spears.

In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge left the air unbreathable for days. It snowed ash in Portland, and I purchased N95 masks for the first time. I had never even heard of these masks before, but news sources said they were the only ones that could keep out harmful smoke particulates. One month later, I awoke to a barrage of text messages, mostly from friends on the East Coast who had been up looking at the news while I still slept. “Are your parents okay?” a few of them read. I immediately called my mom, who answered the phone in tears.

She was woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise. High winds in the nearby mountains had caused a stainless-steel barrel in their backyard to topple. Mom, in her nightgown and flip-flops, walked out to find the heavy thing on its side. She mistook the noises outside for the ordinary sounds of night: the strange mating calls of nocturnal creatures and the cars of young partiers drinking in wooded crannies. Eventually, her eyes acclimated to the darkness. She saw a slow procession of cars moving down the hill. She heard someone call, “Get out now!” The smell of smoke finally registered. She grabbed my father, and they left in their nightclothes with the fireball just behind them, igniting oak and pine, shingle and roof.

All that was left of our home was three brick pillars and a mangled garage door. The baby books burned, as well as the photographs and the family heirlooms. My family lost everything that’s important to us—the evidence of our existence.

Since that catastrophic night, my hometown hasn’t been the same. The once-sublime time of year from August through October has become a PTSD-triggering season in hell. Yearly fires now sweep through the region, brought on by extreme heat, high winds, and freak lightning storms. Preemptive power outages, mandatory evacuations, hazardous air quality, school and work closures, and the risk of losing everything to fire have been a yearly reality. I’ve urged my parents to leave, but they are too attached to the area, having recently bought a new home only three miles down the ridge from the one that burned down.

I don’t share their optimism. Last week, I sat in my living room in Portland wearing a ratty, two-month-old N95 mask and a pair of swimming goggles to keep my eyes from burning. The smoke seeped under our front door, making me dizzy and nauseous. Our apartment was a stifling 90 degrees inside, but we couldn’t open the windows for ventilation. My lungs ached all around—in my back and under my armpits and behind my breasts. I went to urgent care and the waiting room was filled with others with similar symptoms. On my way home, I had the urge to keep driving until I reached blue skies, fresh air.

Animals have a primal instinct to flee from fire, to move toward safety. Birds take to the canopy, up away from the blaze; rabbits and mice scurry for the moist shelter of hollow logs and needle-packed soil; elk and deer wade in icy streams.

The 2020 western–United States wildfires have scorched more than 5 million acres, and they continue to blaze. Because of climate change, we know that this weather isn’t a fluke, but a trend—our future. The time has come for us to flee.

My husband and I plan on moving to the Minneapolis area this spring. We chose this flat, cold, landlocked city because my sister and her family live there, it has a vibrant literary community, it’s affordable, and, most importantly, it’s unlikely to suffer a 20-year mega-drought and consequent wildfires. Perhaps our reaction is extreme, but so is the weather. Though I’m already mourning the ocean and the Douglas firs and the view of Mount Hood that makes me gasp every time I look to the east, I know that if I stay, I will miss them even more, for I will not get to go outside and enjoy them.