Arrival of the Climate Refugees: Wildfires offer first taste of climate change displacement and migration crisis in US

Arrival of the Climate Refugees: Wildfires offer first taste of climate change displacement and migration crisis in US

“The worst fire season ever. Again.”

VicesSeptember 17, 2020 By Will Brendza

I woke up in the bed of my truck and could hardly breathe. My nose was caked with sooty crap, my sinuses were stuffed and my throat was soar. It was dark. I glanced at my watch: 8:46 am.

It shouldn’t be dark anymore.

I coughed, cleared my throat and sat up, peering outside, rubbing crust from my eyes. I squinted, trying to recognize my surroundings. I’d gone to sleep in Oregon, but the world around me now looked more like Venus. The coastal hills and forest were nowhere to be seen, ash fell like snow from the sky and the sun, rising somewhere in the east, filled the air with an eerie orange-yellow glow.

We’d arrived on the Pacific coast, at Cape Lookout, Oregon from Colorado just the previous day, and it had been relatively clear. Relatively. We’d been camping the entire trip and we’d seen our share of haze. But this was something else. A massive weather shift the previous day had fanned existing infernos, and ignited other, totally new ones across the unusually dry state of Oregon. Overnight (literally) the entire coast had been engulfed in fire and thick ugly smoke. Hundreds of thousands of acres were burning, a town called Talent had been wiped off the map, and reports of the first fatalities were starting to trickle in.

I brushed the ash from my sleeping bag, unzipped it and stepped out of the truck bed. The world smelled like a campfire — there was no escaping it. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but the air quality that morning was the worst in the world because of Oregon’s fires.

My friends and I had planned to spend the day on the beach, roaming, wandering, exploring that gorgeous part of the Pacific coastline into the afternoon.

However, when we were all awake and adjusted to the strange reality around us, when we finally arrived on the iconic beach of Oceanside, Oregon, there wasn’t much to see. The smoke was thick in our lungs and in our eyes, the view was almost non-existent, the water (as always) was frigid.

We didn’t stay there for long.

For that matter, we didn’t stay in Oregon for long after that. The state had descended into one of emergency: State parks, forests, trails and campgrounds were closing, and a grim sense of unease was settling over local communities. The wildfire situation had escalated quickly, and with volatility. People were worried. Some were getting out — some of them for good. And we decided we should probably follow suit. After all, Colorado’s wildfires were finally starting to abate.

Still, that Oregon smoke followed us all the way home.

Now, a week later and over 40,000 Oregonians have been evacuated and 500,000 more are on standby. The death toll — so far — has risen to 10.   

The situation in California and Washington is no better. Wildfires, fueled by “mega-droughts” and historic heat waves are setting new precedents along the West Coast, raising the bar of destruction to new heights. An LA Times headline summed the situation up nicely: “The worst fire season ever. Again.”

The root force behind all this should surprise no one: climate change. Making those Californian, Washingtonian and Oregonian evacuees, part the first wave of the “climate refugee crisis” — when rising oceans, sinking cities, unprecedented wildfires, super-hurricanes and mega-droughts displace people by the millions and mass migrations start across the the globe.

That crisis has begun, and it looks as though we’re getting our first taste of it in the US. It’s a challenge that’s only going to become more complex and unmanageable as time goes on. (And in a time of pandemic, migrations on such a scale pose particularly sinister problems: Where do you house refugees who might be COVID carriers? What do you do to keep them isolated? How do you rehabilitate potentially hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lost their homes/jobs, and are now vulnerable and exposed to illness? How do you care for them?)

It’s a prospect that raises a lot of questions. And yet, still, in the first-world, whenever the climate refugee crisis is discussed, it’s almost always in the context of the third- and second-worlds.

For instance, in 2018 the World Bank published research in which they estimated that between Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, there could be as many as 143 million “climate migrants” by 2050. (A prediction that, notably leaves out most of the first-world.)

Or in 2015, when Thane Kreiner a Ph.D and professor at Santa Clara University in California wrote in an op-ed about the climate refugee crisis, he said: “The developed world is still largely sheltered from climate change effects. But the world’s poor feel the impacts directly.”

Most outlets seemed to agree: Climate Change might be a global issue, but there was still time because the effects would wreak havoc on poor countries first. If the crisis wasn’t yet knocking on the first-world’s door, there was no need to immediately address or prepare for it.

That kind of hopeful thinking could only last so long, though. In 2018 alone, it’s estimated that some 1.2 million Americans left their homes because of climate related issues. And now, this most recent round of wildfires seems to crystalize the fact: America and the first-world are not insulated from this issue. It’s here and we’re going to have to figure out how to juggle climate refugees along with all the other devastating effects of climate change, the impacts of COVID-19, and all of 2020’s political turmoil, social unrest and economic upheaval.

These wildfires tearing across the West are a sign of times to come, a symbol of the oncoming crises — and they could very likely become the new norm. That hellish orange glow the Pacific coast was enveloped in could become a staple of Oregon, Washington and California’s summers. Ash raining from the sky might become more common than snow in those parts.

If that’s true, it will also mean mass relocation and displacement — both voluntary and involuntary — across the US and throughout the world: The climate refugee crisis, realized.