With wildfires raging across the state, threatening homes and turning the air a dystopian, choking orange, the California Dream is looking increasingly untenable.
The home of healthy outdoor living and aspirational wellness has had its vulnerabilities exposed by this year’s record wildfires, which have already burned through 2.2 million acres, just days into traditional wildfire season.
The link between wildfires and climate change is simple, though quantifying it is harder: hotter air means more areas of drier vegetation, which act as a tinderbox.
Wildfires are common in California, but as the state has heated up, they have burned further, for longer.
Parts of the sunshine state have warmed 2C in the past century, compared to the global average of 1C, and earlier this year its Death Valley had the highest global temperature on record, reaching 54.4C.
The ten largest California fires since 1932 have all occurred since 2000 and this year’s have already hit a new record, having arrived much earlier than usual.
California’s residents are now facing something of a reckoning for their way of life. It has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which means people can’t socialise indoors, while the state of the environment means they can no longer be outdoors either.
Instead, people hurry from air conditioned home to air conditioned car, to office and back. Air purifiers have sold out as smoke turns the air into a health hazard, even hundreds of miles from the fires.
That additional demand has contributed to pressures on the electricity grid, causing rolling blackouts in many areas.
All the state’s national forests and many of its state parks, which for many are the big draw to life in California, have been closed by the wildfire risk.
The fires are also exacerbated by Californians’ growing desire to live closer to nature, both putting them in the line of fire, and also raising the risk of starting one, whether through an abandoned barbecue or a gender reveal mishap.
But the build up of developments in forest areas not only puts more people in direct danger, but it has also changed forest management, discouraging the regular and managed burning of underbrush as residents object to smoke filling their neighbourhoods.
Without managed burning, when wildfires do break out, they grow out of control much quicker simply because there is more vegetation to burn.
Californians now face the question of whether to leave – if they can afford to – or stay and adapt to what is likely to be a new normal, at least for a few weeks a year.
It’s a question that will face more and more communities as the effects of climate change become clearer.
Climate risk will become one of the factors we have to consider when we decide where to move, or what kind of house to buy.
Tackling California’s yearly wildfires is likely to require a rethink of where to build. As the big cities have become more expensive, moving further out has become the only option for many. But managing the wildfires and keeping people out of danger is much easier if they are in cities.
Homeowners are already struggling to get insurance against fire risk in California, just as many do in the flood-prone areas of the Humber, or along the UK’s crumbling coastline.
This year’s heatwave in the UK caused a run on air conditioners, and was accompanied by warnings that the new risk of fuel poverty will be summer rather than winter in the future, as people struggle to stay cool.
But climate change is not yet part of our everyday calculations. We build poor housing on flood plains or next to forests, and construct homes and offices that we know will overheat.
In California in particular, that is likely to mean stemming the amount of development near rural areas as
We also continue to delay action on climate change that will limit these impacts in the future.
Californians who can leave are relatively lucky. Richer countries, and their wealthier residents, are not immune to climate change, but they do have more options when it comes to dealing with them.
Analysis: Climate change is already making California feel unlivable Wire Services/ The Telegraph.