California fire drives family to Vermont

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

The family of seven couldn’t find anything nearby to replace their home burned to the ground in the 2018 Paradise fire. It was pretty daunting to rebuild in a city that felt more like a deserted war zone than the close-knit community they loved.

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

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

“I don’t want a tornado. I don’t want a hurricane. I don’t want a flood. I don’t want a fire,” she said. “Since you’re looking at a map of the United States, you can basically put an X across the western part of the country. Even Idaho, Montana, everywhere they were having droughts.”

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

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

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

“I felt excited to go to a new place and be out of the fireplace,” said Soraya Holden, 10, one of five children, as she walked alongside the family’s herd of goats behind a former dairy barn. She highlighted the area’s advantages – climbing, gymnastics and a climate that “isn’t too hot”.

Families are increasingly viewing the climate as a change as temperatures and weather-induced disasters rise. Several reports earlier this year highlighted the trend. One found that 2021 was the deadliest year in the contiguous US since 2011 – with 688 people dying in 20 weather 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 interest in climate havens is fundamentally about hope — wanting to have a safe place to escape the worst impacts of climate change,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, an associate professor in 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.”

While there is little data documenting this phenomenon, there are reports of American families heading to cooler destinations not drastically affected by climate change. Communities near Canada – such as Cincinnati, Duluth, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York – are popular drop-off points. Another Paradise family also chose Vermont.

The Holdens lost everything in the fires of Heaven, joining thousands who never returned. The 2018 fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed 19,000 structures and killed 85 people. Only a few thousand of the 27,000 residents 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 home five months later, all that was left was a “pile of ash and the chimney,” said James Holden.

“Every landmark you know is gone. That was the thing that was weird,” he said. “Arriving in the city, that’s when you realize the devastation… Ninety-five percent of the city was burned. Every store… The used car dealer. It was too full of burnt hulks now.”

The few things the Holdens recovered are now crated in the dairy barn – a burned-out trombone, plant hanger, piano stands, a jewelry box, a seashell, wedding silverware.

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

Initially, the family wasn’t ready to give up on Paradise. All the children, now ages 4 to 15, were born there, and Ellie Holden’s grandparents lived there.

Taking a “this fire won’t destroy us” attitude, James Holden moved the church parking trailer back to the 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 transported water for drinking, cooking and bathing. James Holden created a solar power system for electricity. For internet, they used cell phone hotspots.

“We were living in ashes. The kids were constantly dirty because of that black ash,” said Ellie Holden. “We no longer had any community. All of our friends had moved to (near) Chico or… somewhere in the country. There was nothing else we loved. There were no trees, no forest.”

So, the couple began to consider Vermont. They had already played with agriculture in the East. But the idea really caught on after the fire.

James Holden’s research indicated that Vermont was not at great risk from tornadoes, wildfires or hurricanes and appeared more hospitable from a climate perspective. It was, according to a climate assessment last year by scientists at the University of Vermont, getting increasingly hot and humid. But it was nothing like California.

Before buying the farm, the family watched YouTube videos of the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene a decade ago. They talked to insurance agents and took comfort that their house had not been flooded and that Proctor and Rutland had not been destroyed. The water only hit the two-lane road that ran alongside his property, not the house.

“Of course, anything can happen anywhere you live. Your home could burn down with an electrical fire. Anything can happen,” said Ellie Holden. “But we got to the point where we wanted to mitigate as much risk as we could.”

Your new home has not come without challenges. The dairy farm has not been in operation since the 1990s and needs a lot of work. The skyrocketing cost of building materials slowed renovations. Uninsulated parts of the house can drop into single digits in winter.

But they feel blessed to have found a new life. They have a small herd of goats to clear vegetation and 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 woods.

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

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Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @mcasey1

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The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about the AP climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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