Valley News – Experts warn Upper Valley of likely destination for climate migration, and we should plan for it


Michelle Brazil’s 5-year-old son Emmett quit acting last weekend and turned to her. He smelled of smoke.

“It’s a campfire. It’s good smoke, she reassured him. “It’s good now.”

But even a good smoke brings back memories of the Almeda fire, which destroyed their home and all their belongings in Ashland, Oregon, in September 2020. Michelle and her husband, Forest Brazil, moved into an apartment in the sub- ground at Enfield about two weeks ago. . Suitcases and boxes line the wall, although fewer in number than those that normally accompany a family of five. Camping chairs and a folding table serve as a dining set. Hanging on the wall is a bright Happy Birthday banner – Emmett just turned 5. He has two younger sisters – Lily, 3, and Una, 9 months, and their toys decorate the main room of the sparsely furnished apartment.

“We don’t have any tips,” Michelle said.

In the aftermath of the fire, the couple knew their days on the West Coast were numbered. Forest said a guiding question governed where they wanted to move: “Where do nature’s factors overwhelm you?” “

They lacked the courage to live with the threat of natural disasters they could not protect themselves from.

They didn’t want their children to grow up breathing the smoke that seeped through the walls and clouded the sun. They were looking for a “home forever”. They chose the northeast, first Vermont and finally New Hampshire.

“We preferred cold and snow to drought, heat, smoke and fire,” Forest said.

Climatic migrations and the Upper Valley

The Brazilians are at the forefront of climate migration. In the decades to come, people fleeing the increasing risks of climate change will displace the population of the United States. Experts expect many to come to the Upper Valley.

Erich Osterberg, climatologist at Dartmouth, detailed the climatic pressures that will force people to choose to live with extreme weather conditions or to move away. Hurricanes hit the southeast coast with increasing frequency. Forest fires consume entire swathes of the West every year. The stress on the water municipalities becomes more extreme every year as the mega-drought in the southwest drags on.

“We have a lot of water here. We know precipitation increases with climate change, and we have a problem with flash floods and river floods as precipitation increases, ”Osterberg said. “But it’s a problem that’s probably easier to deal with than generalized drought.”

Studies have identified northern New England, as well as Alaska, as some of the most weather-resistant places, he said. Research suggests that most climate migrants to the United States will likely move within 100 miles of their homes, so he speculated that the Upper Valley could see an influx from Boston and New York.

The Environmental Protection Agency released its Cumulative Resilience Screening Index in 2020. The EPA assessed each county in the United States on factors ranging from climate risk to infrastructure resilience to local government effectiveness. . Grafton, Sullivan, Orange and Windsor counties were all relatively safe midnight blue on the color-coded map.

On the risk map, however, they pale in comparison to other parts of the country. But that doesn’t mean the Northeast won’t face severe impacts from climate change.

“We know that extreme precipitation and flooding, like the one we saw in Tropical Storm Irene, has worsened since the mid-1990s – and we expect this trend to continue in the future. “said Osterberg.

Osterberg will participate in the High Valley Adaptation and Living Communities Working Group Virtual Forum on Climate Migration Planning on November 9. He and other social scientists and climatologists in the northeast will use the forum as part of their proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fund a series of workshops so that communities in the region can plan for climate migration.

“One of the things we’ve come to believe is that it’s all about planning,” Osterberg said. Migration “without proper planning” during the COVID-19 pandemic hurt longtime residents who struggled as foreigners pushed house prices out of reach.

Osterberg pointed out that while climate migration may present challenges – a growing population would mean even more demand on the already limited housing stock – it will also provide opportunities to build a more diverse and younger population and to provide for the growing number of people. vacant jobs.

“How do we think about what we want our cities to look like in 50 years with a bigger population while still retaining everything we love about the region? ” He asked. “Maintain forests, maintain the natural environment, and make it more resilient to the types of climate change we expect – warmer temperatures and higher precipitation.”

He and Elena Mihaly, senior attorney for the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation who will be presenting at the forum, both argued that municipalities should encourage development in their inner cities.

COVID migration has offered a window into what climate migration might look like, as well as what to avoid, Mihaly said. Richer families fleeing cities often “want their own piece of the outdoors,” resulting in sprawling development patterns that threaten forests and fragment open lands. And the typical climate migrant will be wealthy, she said. The rich can afford to escape extreme weather conditions more easily than their less fortunate neighbors.

“There is a lot more pressure on natural resources compared to what we saw last year,” she said. “Access to the outdoors, to the great outdoors, to the beauty of the landscapes” – the reasons why many people choose to make the Haute Vallée their home – “these are the very things that will be most threatened if we do not We do not adequately ”re protect environmental protections and laws.

When home can no longer be home

For the Brazil family, no place on the West Coast felt safe. They had already wanted to move because of the smoke season. Every summer, smoke from forest fires clogged the air and obscured the morning sun with an orange, apocalyptic glow.

“Honestly, it feels like you’re smoking cigarettes even if you don’t smoke cigarettes,” Michelle said. “You’re just up to lung capacity. It is really oppressive.

“You couldn’t escape it,” Forest said.

It would seep through the ineffective insulation of the old house they were renting on the outskirts of Ashland. But when fall arrived, with cool air and light drizzle, the beauty of Oregon made it easy to overlook the sweltering summer air.

The threat of a forest fire itself seemed distant. They thought they were far enough away from the scorching expanses of rural California and dry forests that lit up like powder kegs.

But in September 2020, a “perfect storm” proved otherwise. Winds of 80 km / h rushing over hot, dry land turned a small fire started in a skate park into a forest fire. With other fires raging in the area, few resources were available to fight the blaze. Forest, a stay-at-home dad, was with the children at home when the Almeda fire turned their lives upside down.

The “ironic thing,” Forest said, was that his parents had come to Oregon to stay until the smoke cleared near their home in California. Her mother noticed that the smoke looked different from what it usually was. He stepped out, raising his arm to shield his eyes from the dirt and debris the wind was throwing at him. Smoke was pouring into the house from the city. He felt something wet, like rain, on his arm as a helicopter above him attempted to put out the flames. That’s how close the fire was.

“The pit in my stomach just bottomed out,” he said. No emergency text or firefighter came to tell them to leave or that they would be safe. But he had to keep his family away.

They piled into the car and drove north towards the office where Michelle worked as a psychologist. Cars blocked the southbound highway out of town as it sped north. It was like a “scene from a disaster movie” – a comparison he often used to describe an experience that felt less than real.

They met Michelle, who was 24 weeks pregnant. She resisted getting a hotel room, insisting the house was still standing. But they reserved one. More than 2,500 homes are said to burn that day, and three people died. That evening, the evacuees crowded into the hotel. The rooms were filling up long before everyone had a place to sleep.

That evening their owner called. The house was gone. He sent a photograph of the brick fireplace standing among the ashes.

“It was surreal looking at your clothes and shoes and knowing that’s all you got,” Forest said.

The following year was all fleeting and uncertain. Housing in Ashland, a town about 20 miles from the northern California border and 80 miles from the Pacific coast, was already scarce, and with thousands of homes burned down in the area, prices spiked. is installed. The Brazilians stayed in a friend’s basement apartment. ; they moved in with parents in Forest, California, where Michelle gave birth to Lily; they crammed into a studio barely big enough to hold a sofa bed, cot, and playpen for the newborn. They wanted to move before the summer smoke season, but it took Michelle longer to find a job in the Northeast.

She now works in the Upper Valley, but they are still looking for where they want to live all the time. But they know they are going to stay in the area, so they can start to accumulate furniture that will become the familiar items of their new home.

Their children are so young that the tumultuous year of the family will exist as their parents’ stories, not as memories. For that, Michelle and Forest are happy.

“We were looking for a place to just settle down and let our kids grow up somewhere, in the same place,” Michelle said. “It seemed like a good choice.”

Claire Potter is a member of the Report for America Corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.

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