Could Parts of Northern California Become Uninhabitable?

Like a whole lot of people, I’ve been trying to avoid the question. Residents of NorCal tend to love where they live, and why not? I admit to moving to northern California for the superb fishing and outdoor opportunities. Besides fishing, soon enough I was also snowboarding, mountaineering, whitewater rafting, hiking, backpacking and skydiving, to name a few. But recently I’ve been noticing some disturbing changes seeping into our outdoor paradise. So much so that continuing to avoid the question almost seems cowardly.

So here it is: At what point, if any, do parts of California become unhealthy or even impractical to sustain human life? The great fishing and all ways to stay active in northern California are still here. But if it’s unhealthy to breathe the air outside for months on end, if a misplaced spark or lightning strike could easily destroy your home and everything you own, if there isn’t enough electricity to flip on the air conditioner because it’s 115 degrees outside, well, do you see where this is going? When is enough, enough?

There is, of course, no one answer to this question. Every person is different and there are likely a million good reasons to call NorCal home. But the fact is, certain things are in a state of flux. 

It seems like every year there are more days over 95 degrees. Spring, summer, fall and winter have been whittled away to winter and “fire season.” The number of days the air is unhealthy to breathe continues to rise. As of this writing there is NO snow on Mt. Shasta, and our reservoirs look more like the rivers they once were before the dams were built. And it only gets more expensive to live here every year.

The only state with a higher cost of living than California is Hawaii, but if you can afford it, that might not matter to you. The cost of living in California is about 50 percent higher than the national average mainly due to the cost of housing. Wages in the big cities tend to be higher too, but so are housing costs. Outside of the larger metropolitan areas, wages are less likely to keep up with housing costs forcing people to cut corners elsewhere. Again, maybe the nice weather is an acceptable trade off. But as it continues to get even hotter and drier, somewhere there must be a tipping point.

California abounds in quaint, historic gold rush communities nestled in the mountains and surrounded by picturesque wilderness. The quality of life in these places is nearly ideal until you factor in the annual cost of fire insurance or the prospect of losing everything (even your life) to the next megafire. One-third of the largest wildfires in U.S. history have occurred in California. At least half of California north of San Francisco is considered to be in moderate, high or very high fire hazard severity zones. Is there a point where people aren’t even going to be able to get fire insurance in some areas?

No one is trying to sell anyone on climate change. Either you think it’s real and human-caused, or you don’t. It doesn’t matter. We do, however, know a few things for sure. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) California’s climate is “changing,” (code for getting warmer). Of course, it’s not only California. It’s the entire world. When you consider how hot some parts of NorCal already are, that’s getting pretty darned toasty. 

I remember Redding hitting 118 degrees. I also remember daily temperatures eclipsing 110 degrees and lasting from July through mid-October. Most people have air conditioning, but when everyone has theirs cranked up at the same time, something’s gotta give. Swamp coolers are a waste when temps. hit triple-digits, and that’s all a lot of folks have.

If climate change is real and human-caused, then we may have a shot at turning things around by reducing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Ann executive order was signed requiring all new passenger cars and trucks in California to be electric by 2035. 

How might that help? Well, there are a number of other ways to make electricity for cars that don’t involve burning fossil fuels. Can California alone reduce worldwide greenhouse gasses? Of course not. The entire world has to join the effort. But if the worlds’ inability to come together to fight COVID-19 is any indication, frankly, it doesn’t look good for our planet.

If the world could somehow reverse the effects of climate change, things could potentially get cooler and wetter for California, but we’re talking about decades or even centuries to repair the climate enough to see a noticeable difference. Maybe, eventually, our climate could become cooler and wetter.

Armchair meteorologists are fond of saying it’s not a question of if the high-risk timbered areas are going to burn, but when. That might seem like so much baloney, except for the fact that every fire season it seems more likely to be true. I wish it weren’t.

In the meantime, we’ve established that things are getting hotter, more likely to burn, smokier, drier and more expensive to live in NorCal. So what do we do about it? The short answer might be, “move somewhere else.” But human beings can be quirky and complex. 

Hardly anyone loves NorCal for a single reason. It’s usually a combination of factors that makes a place into a home. Maybe it’s proximity to family (or away from) mixed up with a good job, great outdoor opportunities, love for the ocean, the mountains or the rivers. Everyone is different. There are plenty of positive things about NorCal to balance against the growing list of negatives. While the “experts” might not agree on the causes, no one is offering any easy or quick solutions either.

Maybe it’s time to admit this is our new “normal,” at least for the foreseeable future. We might be looking at fewer people living in the high fire-hazard zones and either moving to the larger metropolitan areas, or out of California altogether. 

Having less water to go around has to have an impact too. Will California get to the point it doesn’t have enough water to support the population? Possibly, not to mention all the water necessary to support our massive agricultural economy. 

We may not have reached our limits yet in terms of how much fire and smoke we can stand, how much heat, how little water, how many wildfires and how expensive it gets to live here, but there is one thing for sure; “the times, they are a changin’.”

Personally, I believe we will see this through and turn things around. I have faith in people, and especially Californians. Like the entire rest of the world, we have significant problems to overcome, but we also have extraordinary resources and exceptional people in our corner. As of this writing Hurricane Ida is about to hit land in Louisiana. People are still dying in Afghanistan. COVID cases and deaths are once again going through the roof. 

Is saving our climate, our state, our economy, our wilderness areas, lakes and rivers, mountain ranges and beaches even possible? I think it is. Now is not the time to give up, but rather come together, hunker down and show the world how Californians get things done.

Stay safe and “Active NorCal” out there, help as many others as you can, and know that whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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