« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Climate change forced me to leave the place that I love

After finding their dream town, a family fled drought and fire.


We hiked past scrub oak and sumac, a wild bees’ nest humming in the peppertrees along the trail. The air hung heavy with the scent of sage, the purple salvia just starting to bloom. The rock-studded dirt path turned a sharp corner, and the water tower came into view. The tank was brimming, surrounded by spring grasses lush from the generous winter rains. I felt a brief surge of hope, but then remembered — hope is a dangerous emotion in this climate.

When I’d driven through town eight months earlier, I was struck by how perfect it seemed: a hamlet full of parks and citrus groves, surrounded by national forest. Towering oak trees lined the streets, evidence of a historically consistent water source. In the shadow of the Topatopa Mountains, the town bells chimed on the hour, a reminder of just how quickly time passes.

We were ready to start a family, ready to exchange the damp bustle and crowds of Seattle for the peace and community of a small town. I looked around, ticking off items on my dream-town checklist: good food, sunshine, a day’s drive from my parents. I convinced my husband to abandon friends we’d spent the last decade making and the house we’d restored room by room. I had, I assured him, found the perfect place to spend the next chapter of our lives.

Smoke sits low to the ground as the sun rises in Ojai, California, in early December.
Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Jobs were applied for and miraculously acquired. I took a pregnancy test confirming that, yes, the hoped-for family would be arriving soon. Only as the move drew closer did we began to wonder: Is there enough water to support life there?

There must be, we told ourselves. I grew up in California, my childhood filled with reminders to turn off faucets and let lawns go yellow. Water was scarce, water was precious, but there was always enough.

We rented a house while ogling For Sale signs, thinking about school districts and fenced backyards for the first time. Realtors urged us to buy something soon, because homes were selling for more than they had ever seen. Outsiders were falling in love with the area for the same reasons we had, snatching up every cottage and starter home that came on the market. Yet when the woman from the water company came to read the meter on our rental, we got to talking about all the newcomers. “We keep telling people to get out of town,” she sighed, shaking her head. “But they just keep buying houses.”

As I unpacked boxes and met our neighbors, I began to learn how dire the water situation really was. The record rain and snowfall that eased the drought in most of the state that winter weren’t enough to satiate this parched county. The town has two water sources, an aquifer and a lake, and both were at historic lows. Because it’s not connected to the California Water Project, the heavy rain was not enough to lift us out of “severe drought” status. Five years, locals warned in hushed resignation: There is enough water to support life for five more years.

Falling in love with a town that is running out of water is a bit like falling in love with someone with a terminal illness. You can pray for a miracle, hope for a cure, but the tragic prognosis remains a fact. No matter how perfect, how beloved the individual in question may be, an end is inevitable.

The trail led to a lookout point, and I perched on a boulder to survey the valley below. What would it look like at the end? I imagined my new family crammed into a slow caravan of Subarus and SUVs, a reversal of the Dust Bowl migration that brought so many of our ancestors to this golden state. I turned my face to the sun, felt a kick in my growing belly, and tried to soak up a perfect moment in my perfect town.

“I don’t think we can stay here,” I admitted at last, already mourning the loss of a landscape I’d loved at first glance. My husband held my hand and agreed.

Ten months later, as our twins practiced rolling over among the nearly unpacked boxes on the floor of our Seattle living room, I read the headlines: “Thomas Fire Threatens Ojai.” The slow exodus I’d imagined had instead happened at high speed: People left with little more than pets and photo albums, as fire licked the highways out of town.

I’d worried about drought, but my concern was misplaced. The rainfall that felt like such a blessing created fuel for one of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history. As I write these words, my dream town still stands, and our friends and former neighbors are starting to return home, hopeful that the worst is over. I hope they are right. I fear they are not.

Katherine Pryor is the author of Sylvia’s Spinach and Zora’s Zucchini.