San Diego's Climate Crisis: The Risks And Costs Of Living In The Backcountry
This story is part of #CoveringClimateNow, an effort by more than 220 news organizations worldwide to bring about a greater understanding of the real-time impacts of climate change.
Pete Beauregard squints in the morning sun as he thinks back to October 22, 2007.
"That wind hit us at about 120 mph, wind with fire," he said. "It came head-on and it was like a blow torch, it just cut everything to the ground."
He’s talking about the Witch Creek Fire, which engulfed San Diego County that fall — scorching nearly 200,000 acres, forcing half a million evacuations and destroying more than 1,000 homes. Among them was the Ramona home shared by Beauregard and his wife Amy McQuillan.
"The fire was so hot that after we went in, we saw our granite counters on the ground, we tried to pick it up and it just crumbled in my hand," he said.
Despite their catastrophic loss, Beauregard and McQuillan love the backcountry too much to leave it. They built a new home right next to the spot where their old one burned down.
"I love this place," Beauregard said. "As Amy says, it's spiritual. I've put a lot of my life into it, a lot of tragedy, a lot of great times here."
But they have paid a high price for staying in a home that's so special to them. When they rebuilt after 2007, their insurance doubled, and last year it tripled again.
A warming world has made life much more expensive for a lot of people in rural areas susceptible to fires, said David Victor, a professor at UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.
"The measures we take to protect structures in the middle of the forest in communities that have been burned," Victor said. "That might involve simple things like much bigger firebreaks. It might involve much more active identification of fires early on. And then the next thing you know you're in effect managing the entire wood ecosystem because of your concerns about fire."
Higher temperatures mean California’s all-important snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is smaller and melts faster than it did in the past. As a result, forests are dryer for longer. Scientists agree this chain reaction begins with climate change and ends with an increased wildfire danger.
One consequence of all of this is the backcountry might end up like the coast—affordable to only a few, Victor said.
"I think some people who live in that environment are willing to spend huge resources to protect themselves with bigger fire breaks, with different kinds of materials, with private fire services, which are now emerging including connected to the insurance industry," he said. "And so if you're willing to pay for it, I think people could actually last a long time out in that environment."
A year-round fire season
Fire season used to be just that—a season. Now it's basically year-round, said Thomas Shoots, a spokesman for CAL FIRE.
"We always have to be on guard," Shoots said. "We saw the Thomas Fire, we saw the Lilac Fire (both in 2017), these fires are happening around the holidays and around times where we think there's going to be wet weather and everything's going to be good. These past several years have shown us that's not a privilege we have anymore."
In the last year and a half, California has seen six of its 10 worst fires ever, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a "statewide emergency on wildfires" in March—far earlier than the normal fire season—that in part allowed CAL FIRE to hire just under 400 new firefighters.
But it’s now been a dozen years since the Witch Creek Fire and Shoots worries that we might have become complacent.
"The potential is still certainly there and I hope it doesn't take a catastrophic fire to really drive it home," he said. "But ultimately the threat is still there and it's still very real."
But Shoots understands the allure of the backcountry and why people like Beauregard and McQuillan want to stay, despite the risks.
"I don't ever want to discourage someone from finding the spot that makes them happiest," he said. "Our biggest issue is getting people to realize that living out there requires them to take certain steps to be sure that their home and their property is as safe as possible. If they're cognizant of that and they're willing to leave when the time comes, people have the right to do what they want."
Rebuilding in Ramona
Back at home in Ramona, Beauregard and McQuillan are doing what they want. They’ve made their new home the first passive house in the county, a standard for energy efficiency that means it has minimal impact on the environment.
They have solar panels, their own wind turbine, a computer system that monitors energy use and heavily insulated doors. They’ve also done their best to make their new home fire-resistant.
In the next fire, "I'm planning on staying," Beauregard said. He plans to use a pump and hose system that takes water from the pool to fight the fire. "It gives me a really good spray."
They've also cleared brush from around the house and made the home completely airtight. That helps keep it cool, and protected, Beauregard said.
But their airtight home creates additional worries. It's hard to hear or smell what's going on outside.
"So during the dry season we get up during the night and go outside and sniff and check and see if there's anything," McQuillan said. "We're always paying attention to what's happening. It's always kind of in the back of your mind."
Tuesday, September 17, environmental reporter Erik Anderson visits an oyster hatchery in Carlsbad that is battling the impacts of a warming ocean. You can find all our stories on San Diego’s climate crisis at the KPBS Climate Desk.