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Experts warn the Upper Valley a likely destination for climate migration, and we should plan for it

  • Arriving home from work, Michelle Brazil reaches out for her daughter Una, 9 months, in Enfield, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. Her husband Forest Brazil had been playing in the yard with their three children, including Lily, 3, and Emmett, 5. The family moved to New England after their home in Ashland, Ore., was destroyed by the Almeda Fire on Sep. 8, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Lily Brazil, 3, and her brother Emmett, 5, spend time in what is now in use as a playroom at their new home in Enfield, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The family moved to New England after their home in Ashland, Ore., was destroyed by the Almeda Fire on Sep. 8, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Michelle Brazil sorts through a box with her son Emmett, 5, and daughter Lily, 3, at their new home in Enfield, N.H. on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The box had arrived from Brazil's in-laws with some of the family's belongings from when they lived in California. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Forest Brazil and his wife Michelle Brazil walk to their Enfield, N.H., basement apartment with children Una, 9 months, Emmett, 5, and Lily, 3, on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. The family moved to New England after their home in Ashland, Ore., was destroyed by the Almeda Fire on Sep. 8, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2021 7:05:12 AM
Modified: 11/5/2021 1:21:29 PM

Michelle Brazil’s 5-year-old son, Emmett, stopped playing last weekend and turned to her. He smelled smoke.

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

But even good smoke brings back the memories of the Almeda Fire, which consumed their home and all their possessions in Ashland, Ore., in September 2020. Michelle and her husband, Forest Brazil, moved into a basement apartment in Enfield about two weeks ago. Suitcases and boxes line the wall, although fewer than would normally accompany a family of five. Camping chairs and a folding table serve as a dining set. A bright “Happy Birthday” banner hangs on the wall — Emmett just turned 5. He has two younger sisters — 3-year-old Lily and 9-month-old Una, and their toys decorate the apartment’s sparsely furnished main room.

“We don’t have stuff,” Michelle said.

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

They did not have it in them to live with the threat of natural disasters they couldn’t protect themselves against.

They didn’t want their children to grow up breathing smoke that seeped through the walls and blurred the sun. They sought a “forever home.” They decided on the Northeast, first Vermont and eventually New Hampshire.

“We’d take cold and snow over drought, heat, smoke and fire,” Forest said.

Climate migration and the Upper Valley

The Brazils are on the vanguard of climate migration. In decades to come, people fleeing the growing risks of climate change will shift the population of the United States. Experts expect that many will come to the Upper Valley.

Erich Osterberg, a climate scientist at Dartmouth, detailed the climate pressures that will force people to choose to live with extreme weather or move away. Hurricanes barrel against the southeastern coast with increasing frequency. Wildfires consume swaths of the West each year. The stress on water municipalities gets more extreme each year as the megadrought in the Southwest drags on.

“We have lots of water up here. We know that rainfall is increasing with climate change, and we do have a problem with flash flooding and river flooding as rainfall increases,” Osterberg said. “But that is a problem that is probably easier to deal with than widespread drought.”

Studies have identified northern New England, along with Alaska, as some of the most climate-resilient places to live, he said. Research suggests that most climate migrants in the U.S. will likely move within 100 miles from their home, so he hypothesized that the Upper Valley may see an inflow from Boston and New York.

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

On the risk map, though, they paled against the other parts of the country. But that doesn’t mean that the Northeast won’t face severe impacts from climate change.

“We know that extreme rainfall and flooding, like what we saw in Tropical Storm Irene, has become worse since around the mid-1990s — and we expect that trend to continue in the future,” Osterberg said.

Osterberg will participate in the Upper Valley Adaptation Workgroup and Vital Communities’ virtual forum on planning for climate migration on Nov. 9. He and other social and climate scientists across 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 communities in the region can plan for climate migration.

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

Osterberg emphasized that while climate migration may bring challenges — a rising population would mean even more demand on the already limited housing stock — it will also bring opportunities to build a more diverse, younger population and to fill the climbing number of vacancies.

“How do we think about what we want our towns to look like 50 years from now with a larger population while maintaining everything we love about the area?” he asked. “Maintaining the woodlands, maintaining the natural environment, and making it more resilient to the kinds of climate change we expect — warmer temperatures and the higher rainfall.”

He and Elena Mihaly, a senior attorney with Conservation Law Foundation Vermont who will be presenting at the forum, both argued that municipalities needed to encourage development in their downtowns.

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

“There is a lot more pressure on natural resources from what we saw just this past year,” she said. “Access to the outdoors, open space, scenic beauty” — the reasons many people choose to make the Upper Valley their home — “they’re the very things that are going to be most threatened if we don’t adequately make sure we’re protecting 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 away because of the smoke season. Each summer, wildfire smoke clogged the air and veiled the morning sun in an orange, apocalyptic glow.

“Honestly it feels like you smoke cigarettes even if you don’t smoke cigarettes,” Michelle said. “You are just at lung capacity. It’s really oppressive.”

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

It would seep through the ineffective insulation of the old house they rented on the outskirts of Ashland. But when fall came, with cool air and light drizzles, the beauty of Oregon made it easy to forget the choking summer air.

The threat of wildfire itself felt distant. They thought that they were far enough from the burning expanses of rural California and the dry forests that lit like tinderboxes.

But in September 2020, a “perfect storm” proved otherwise. Winds of 50 mph rushing over hot, dry land turned a small fire set in a skate park into a wildfire. With other fires raging in the region, few resources were available to fight the fire. Forest, a stay-at-home father, was with the children at the house when the Almeda Fire upended their lives.

The “ironic thing,” Forest said, was that his parents had come to Oregon to stay until the smoke thinned near their home in California. His mother noticed that the smoke seemed different than it usually did. He went outside, lifting his arm to shield his eyes from the dirt and debris that the wind hurled toward him. Smoke streamed toward the house from town. He felt something wet, like rain, on his arm as a helicopter overhead attempted to douse the flames. That’s how close the fire was.

“The pit in my stomach just hit bottom,” he said. No emergency text or fireman came to tell them to leave or where they would be safe. But he had to get his family away.

They piled into the car and drove north toward the office where Michelle worked as a psychologist. Cars jammed the highway headed south outside of town as he sped north. It was like a “scene from a disaster movie” — a comparison he often used as he described an experience that felt less than real.

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

That evening, their landlord called. The house was gone. He sent a photograph of the brick chimney standing tall among the ashes.

“It was surreal to look down at your clothes and your shoes, and know that that’s all that you have,” Forest said.

The next year was all transience and uncertainty. Housing in Ashland, a city about 20 miles from the Northern California border and 80 miles from the Pacific coast, was already scarce, and with thousands of homes in the region burned, the price gouging set in. The Brazils stayed in a friend’s basement apartment; they moved in with Forest’s parents in California, where Michelle gave birth to Una; they crowded into a backyard studio barely big enough to fit a pull-out couch, a bed and a playpen for the newborn. They wanted to move before the summer smoke season, but it took longer than that for Michelle to find a job in the Northeast.

She is now working in the Upper Valley, but they are still looking for where they want to live permanently. But they know they will stay in the region, so they can begin to accrue furniture that will become the familiar objects of their new home.

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

“We were looking for a place just to settle down and let our kids grow up somewhere, in one spot,” Michelle said. “This seemed to be a good pick.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.


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