Fire in California pushes family to Vermont

PROCTOR, Vt. (AP) – Weeks after surviving one of the deadliest and most devastating wildfires in California history, the Holden family just wanted a new home.

The family of seven couldn’t find anything nearby to replace their house reduced to ashes in the Paradise fire of 2018. It proved too daunting to rebuild in a town that looked more like a desolate war zone than the close-knit community they loved .

So they began looking further afield for a place that, unlike California, didn’t seem under constant threat from wildfires, droughts and earthquakes.

“When you’re left with nothing, you start thinking ‘I don’t want to go through something like this again,'” Ellie Holden said.

“I don’t want a tornado. I don’t want a hurricane. I don’t want a flood. I don’t want fire,” she said. “As you look at a map of the United States, you can basically put an X through the entire western part of the country. Even Idaho, Montana, everywhere they had droughts.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series exploring the lives of people around the world who have been forced to relocate by rising seas, droughts, scorching temperatures and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change.


After two years of renting a house in upstate New York, the family found their way to Proctor, Vermont — a town of fewer than 2,000 residents near the Green Mountain National Forest that was once known as the marble capital of the world. The couple, both 40, loved the small-town feel and the open space that reminded them of paradise.

Ellie’s husband James found an engineering job. The family purchased the 192-year-old Valley Acres Farm with 237 acres (96 ha) of woodland and meadows.

“I was excited to go to a new place and be out of the fireplace,” said 10-year-old Soraya Holden, one of five children, as she walked with her family’s herd of goats behind an old dairy barn. She ticked off the area’s advantages – rock climbing, gymnastics and a climate that “doesn’t burn hot”.

Families are increasingly taking climate into their stride as temperatures and climate-induced disasters rise. Several reports earlier this year highlighted the trend. One found that 2021 was the deadliest year in the contiguous United States since 2011 — with 688 people dying in 20 climate and weather disasters with a combined cost of at least $145 billion.

Scientists warn that it is difficult to blame climate change for a single event. But with disasters piling up, some residents of hard-hit areas are concluding that staying in the line of fire is no longer an option.

“I think the interest in climate havens is fundamentally about hope — wanting a safe place to escape the worst impacts of climate change,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, an associate professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo. “But regions, counties and cities need to work to plan for the population change, combined with the impacts of climate change, that they will see.”

Although there is little data documenting this phenomenon, there have been reports of American families heading to cooler destinations that are not dramatically affected by climate change. Communities near Canada — such as Cincinnati, Duluth, Minnesota, and Buffalo, New York — are popular landing spots. Another Paradise family also chose Vermont.

The Holden family lost everything in the Paradise fire, joining thousands who never returned. The 2018 fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed 19,000 structures and killed 85 people. Only several thousand of the 27,000 inhabitants chose to stay and rebuild.

After the family narrowly escaped the flames in cars, they lived in their trailer on a friend’s property, then in the church parking lot. When they returned to their home five months later, all that remained was a “pile of ashes and the chimney,” James Holden said.

“Every landmark you know is gone. That’s what was strange,” he said. lot full of burnt sobs now.”

The few things the Holdens found are now boxed up in the dairy barn – a burnt trombone, plant hanger, piano brackets, a jewelery box, a ladle, wedding silverware.

“When we go through the ashes and we find these things, it makes it more beautiful because you’ve just lost everything that was your old life,” Ellie Holden said. “It is this proof that we had this life. We had a house. We had these things. We were happy.”

Initially, the family was not ready to give up Paradise. All the children, now aged 4 to 15, were born there and Ellie Holden’s grandparents had lived there.

With a “this fire is not going to destroy us” attitude, James Holden moved the trailer from the church parking lot back to his family’s two-thirds of an acre of charred land. Before the fire, they had fruit trees, a huge vegetable garden and chickens.

For three months they relied on rainwater – and when the drought hit, they bought a water tank and hauled in water for drinking, cooking and bathing. James Holden set up a solar system for electricity. For internet they used mobile phone hot spots.

“We lived in ashes. The kids were constantly dirty from the black ash, said Ellie Holden. “We had no community left. All of our friends had either moved to (nearby) Chico or…somewhere across the country. There was nothing left that we loved. There were no trees, no forest.”

Next, the couple began to consider Vermont. Previously, they had played with farming in Eastern Norway. But the idea really took off after the fire.

James Holden’s research indicated that Vermont did not have a high risk of tornadoes, wildfires or hurricanes and appeared more hospitable from a climate perspective. According to a climate assessment last year by University of Vermont researchers, it became warmer and wetter. But it was nothing like California.

Before buying the farm, the family watched YouTube videos of Tropical Storm Irene’s devastation a decade ago. They talked to insurance agents and took comfort in the fact that their home had not been flooded and that nearby Proctor and Rutland were not wiped out. The water only reached the two-lane road along their property, not the house.

“Sure, anything can happen anywhere you live. Your house can burn down from an electrical fire. Anything can happen,” Ellie Holden said. “But we got to the point where we wanted to reduce the risk as much as we could.”

Their new home has not come without its challenges. The dairy has not operated since the 1990s and needs a lot of work. The soaring costs of building materials have slowed down the renovation. Uninsulated parts of the house can fall into the single digits in winter.

But they feel blessed to have found a new life. They have a small herd of goats to clear overgrown vegetation, and they sell eggs from their chickens. They also produce cut flowers for bouquets and heirloom vegetables from their expanding garden. Soon they hope to make maple syrup and eventually build guest cabins in the forest.

“The hardest thing about the last three years has been the loss of that sense of home, the loss of our community,” Ellie Holden said. “We can finally say since moving to Proctor that we have found our home and been welcomed into our new community.”


Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @mcasey1


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