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Fallout From Climate Disasters Are Being Exacerbated by a Housing Crisis

In Oregon, the wildfires are leaving families with nowhere to go.

A man stands near the destruction caused by the Almeda Fire in Phoenix, Oregon, on September 15, 2020.

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When Carolina’s neighbor came to tell her that the fire was coming for her home, she was doubtful. She didn’t see any smoke. But within half an hour it was there, dark and ugly.

Carolina was caring for her son in the mobile home where she lived south of Medford, Ore., with her husband, father, and brothers. (Carolina and her husband are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and because they are currently pursuing an asylum claim, we are withholding their last names.) The men had left at four that morning for work picking pears, apples, and grapes on a nearby farm. When the smoke got thick, Carolina, who doesn’t drive, called her husband to pick her up. By that time, police had arrived in the neighborhood and were telling everyone to leave. Nearby, Carolina recalls, everything was burning. She gathered a few legal documents, took her son by the hand, and fled.

There is virtually nothing left now of the mobile home where Carolina lived. Most of her neighborhood, which was home to a number of immigrant families, was swallowed by the Almeda fire, one of more than 2,000 wildfires that ripped across the West Coast in late August and September. In Oregon they consumed a million acres, double the last decade’s average for a fire season. In California, fires tore through an area almost of the size of Connecticut. The blazes drove tens of thousands of people from their homes, and the smoke trapped everyone else. For a week it felt as if the world had shrunk, the horizon invisible behind layers of smog, the air the color of dirty sherbet.

In Portland, which for several days had the worst air quality of any city in the world, the haze eventually lifted like a lid off the city. But for people like Carolina the crisis is hardly over. Carolina, her husband, Constantino, and her son, Miguel Angel, who is 11 and has developmental delays, came to the United States last year, and moved into the mobile home that her father owned and had lived in for a decade. Now that’s gone, along with the cars that were parked outside and everything else the family had besides the clothes they were wearing, the car the men had taken to work that morning, and the few documents that Carolina managed to grab.

The family of seven spent the first night in the parking lot of the Jackson County Expo Center along with thousands of other evacuees. Then they moved into a small camper on the farm where Constantino works and, recently, into a larger camper purchased with donations from a GoFundMe campaign. Constantino and the other men kept picking fruit in the choking smoke. Not working wasn’t much of an option. “No one has gotten sick, thank God,” Carolina said. “They need to work, because now we don’t have a house, [and] the cars were burned.”

Carolina’s family didn’t have any kind of home insurance, she said, nor did most others who lost homes in her neighborhood. Finding a new one won’t be easy. Affordable housing was already scarce in the Rogue Valley, an agricultural area home to a significant immigrant community. Before the fires the area had a rental vacancy rate below 2 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times, one of the lowest in the country. A third of the residents of Talent, a town of 6,500 just south of Medford that was substantially demolished by the Almeda fire, were already spending more than half of their income on rent. Homelessness was on the rise. Now, a longtime real estate agent in Jackson County estimates that “the vast majority” of what low- and moderately priced housing there was in the area has been destroyed. “It’s like this fire went after the poorest and most vulnerable people in our community,” a city councilor in Phoenix, another community wrecked by the flames, told the Times.

September’s fires are likely the most intense wildfire event in Oregon’s history. Thanks to climate change, the conditions that drove the fire — including a long drought and high winds — are becoming a “new normal.” For a rising number of families, so is the colossal task of starting over. As climate change magnifies ecological risk — making hurricanes stronger, wildfires fiercer and less predictable — it’s also amplifying inequity. Last year, New York Times reporters spent three months reporting from one of the largest homeless encampments in Oakland, Calif., and found that many people were there because of natural disasters. One woman lost her home to a 2014 wildfire in California; another lost hers to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable, according to a forthcoming paper in the journal Geoforum that analyzes the emergency response and recovery effort after a massive 2017 wildfire in California: “Despite being on the front lines of disaster,” the paper reads, “explicit exclusion from recovery and relief efforts leaves undocumented immigrants without a safety net in California’s nearly year-round wildfire season.” In Oregon now, it’s easy to see how climate events, overlaid on top of a housing crisis, wage stagnation, and a pandemic, could leave families like Carolina’s with nowhere to go.

This problem will only get worse, because in a sense the world is shrinking. Across the globe, coastlines are disappearing. Saltwater is seeping inland, deadening agricultural fields. Deserts are expanding, as an atmospheric circulation pattern called the Hadley cell, which creates a dry, hot band around the middle of the earth roughly from the top of the Sahara down to the bottom of the Kalahari, shifts northward. Without a dramatic change in global greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat will become common in the South and Southwestern US, as well as a swath through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China where a fifth of the world’s population lives. According to a recent New York Times/ProPublica analysis, 28 million Americans, not just in the West but also in states like Georgia and Florida, are likely to face mega-fires by 2040, while 100 million people live in areas projected to become so hot and humid that working outside will be a health hazard. As more and more people flee from natural disasters, there will be fewer and fewer decent places to go.

Carolina went back to see what remained of their home a few days after she evacuated. “Everything turned to ashes. Nothing good remained,” she said. Her family has gotten some assistance from local organizations — groups like the Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy and Oregon’s Latinx farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, are distributing aid — but she said that to actually rebuild or find a new home, she and other families will need a lot more help. Carolina’s father and brothers, who have legal status, could go back to Mexico for a while and then return, but she’s still waiting on a court date for her asylum case, and has had trouble finding legal assistance.

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