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The Crisis in the Skies of San Francisco (newyorker.com)
29 points by fortran77 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments

The current smoke situation is i think going to be one of the final straws witch breaks me for living in California. Why am I here? The weather isn’t nice, the air is poison for weeks every year. Threats of water scarcity a few years ago, electricity scarcity now, terrible social problems, expensive everything, inability to really do anything with anyone... I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to live here over the last several years and couldn’t start to justify myself as to what i got out of the experience.

Even with the fires, the Bay Area has had one of the nicest climates for living in the last half decade out of any place in the United States. In the inner Bay Area, PG&E went out for maybe a day during last year’s red flag. Water for consumption is never scarce, most use is agricultural which will be cut far before people are impacted. Certainly there are infrastructure construction concerns (also almost universal in the US), but it’s been one of the safest regions in the coronavirus crisis so even ability to do things seems underestimated.

You may be overreacting to the evidence.

The problem is the quality of life expectations are quite high when you pay $3000 for 1 bedroom.

While air quality/electricity concerns may only last a few weeks per year, and maybe covid is just 6 months (but 1 year is more likely) you then have a city overrun with homeless, walk outside your apartment to see someone sleeping on your stoop, accidentally step on human feces regularly, the BART escalators and most of Market Street stinks of urine, cars are broken into, people are regularly walking into stores, grabbing stuff, and running away with the cashiers screaming at them.

Then you look at your friends in the rest of the country that have already bought a house, and the consolation that you may only be able to rent but it's in a great city -- it starts to wear a bit thin.

The problem is the quality of life expectations are quite high when you pay $3000 for 1 bedroom.

Relative to what you make, is that a lot, compared to what you'd make/pay in Kansas City?

Do you realize that the AQI is terrible for literally a third of the US right now?

If climate change is going to ruin CA, then it will also ruin a LOT of other places. Relatively speaking, the Bay Area will be nicer still, albeit much more expensive, than other places.

Idk about your job but my job would is willing to pay me a bonus to leave SF and will only cut my salary by 10%. Definitely seems worth it to me. Especially factoring in not needing to pay cali income or sales tax.

The bay areas has never been nice in the last 5 years. I can live in a more comfortable house where I don’t have to work 3ft from where I sleep in almost any other city.

“The Bay Area has never been nice in the past 5 years”,

Sigh. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side

>job would is willing to pay me a bonus to leave SF and will only cut my salary by 10%.

How many years worth of a cut salary would the bonus be? I might be missing something (if you are factoring the tax differences I get it).

$5k bonus and I have to stay at the company for a year. If I moved to Seattle (0% income tax), I would not have a pay cut and I would no longer need to pay California's 9.4%. Easy raise and bonus :).

Similar story for Orlando, but with a 10% cut. 10% pay cut and saving 9.3% in income and ~1.3% sales tax. Housing would be about $500/mo cheaper ($6k/yr) and way more comfortable to work from.

> How many years worth of a cut salary would the bonus be?

Who gives a shit? You’re still making good money. What’s your life worth?

Taking this comment on good faith, I'm just asking for my own edification. I've lived in Seattle, downtown adjacent, for 10+ years, and really love it, even with COVID, outside of the few weeks where we've had bad smoke. Obviously if half the year is going to be like this, I'm leaving regardless of the salary ramifications, but if we are talking a week or so every couple years, it might be a different story. I moved to Seattle to escape other problematic issues where I used to live, and I suspect the same is true for lots of folks.

I can’t imagine why you moved to Seattle to escape “problematic issues” with where you lived before. Were you in Phoenix before...? Seattle isn’t exactly a place that lacks problems. I left in 2014 and as far as I can tell, it has only gotten worse with its issues.

I was in New Mexico.

Shhh! Not in front of the Coastals. Remember your debriefing when you left. The InterMountain West is whatever they think they don’t want. If you must, say you were in Montana or Idaho. Maybe Canada. Mention Breaking Bad, buses powered by burros, radioactive waste bins beside recycling bins...

You should also be factoring in the cost of living difference to really figure out if there's a real loss

> Relative to what you make, is that a lot, compared to what you'd make/pay in Kansas City?

With remote work, it's not even close. I'd take COLA pay cut and still have more after taxes.

But even ignoring remote work, let's compare two cities: San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

Median HH Income in SF: 108K (source: https://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/california/san-francisc...)

Median House Price in SF: 1.4 Million (source: https://www.zillow.com/san-francisco-ca/home-values/)

SF Price to Income ratio: 13

Median HH Income Salt Lake City: 74K (source: https://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/utah/salt-lake-city/)

Median House Price: 420K (source: https://www.zillow.com/salt-lake-city-ut/home-values/)

Salt Lake City Price to Income ratio: 5.7

Of course SLC has worse average AQI than a coastal city like SF. If you are inland and have a large population, you will have worse particulates. So let's look at coastal cities all of which have air quality as good or better than SF and have the bonus of warm water so you can swim at the beach:

Jacksonville, FL:

median HH income: 47K

median house price: 196K

Price to Income: 4.2

Charleston, SC:

median household income: 64K

median house price: 337K

median price to income: 5.3

Wilmington, NC:

median household income: 53K

median house price: 300K

price to income: 5.7

Do you see a pattern?

And none of these cities have streets filled with feces and homeless encampments, a 16% state income tax with high income surcharge, or refuse to prosecute property crime.

Where are you getting 16% state income tax from? In your median income example of 108k, the top rate for single filer is 9.3%, but that payers effective rate is only 6.6% (summed over all bracket). This is not much higher than Utah's flat 4.95%

Even a single filer making $500k/year will only hit a top rate of 11.3%, and effective rate of 9.4%. For surcharges to kick in requires > $1M/year, and only affects the amount over that.

Probably including the sales tax or something in the figure. Isn’t California one of the worst states in the country for tax burden?

I do find it weird that CA has some of the worst taxes for new residents. I can’t imagine a place that is more difficult to break into and then settle in. (High property values, outrageously high property taxes, high sales tax, high income tax, etc...) It’s setup to only let the rich get in and stay. Not a very inclusive place.

It still wouldn't make any sense including sales tax. The effect of sales tax on total tax burden scales even less linearly than the steeply progressive CA income tax rates! The more you earn, the smaller % of your income goes to things that are sales taxed.

The income tax scale in CA is steeply progressive, a 50k earner pays only 3.8%, less than almost all states that have flat income tax. For a median earner, CA is in the upper half but not exceptionally high: https://wallethub.com/edu/states-with-highest-lowest-tax-bur...

Having been in very high income brackets myself, lived in both low and high col areas/states, and run this calculation often, I think taxes is largely a red herring. The difference made by tax is just peanuts compared to the impact of housing cost, which truly is very high in CA. For low income brackets, CA is frequently lower tax burden than elsewhere, but housing cost will destroy you. For very high income brackets you do start to see the difference in marginal tax rate, but your absolute income is so much higher that you aren't spending a significant % on sales tax, and those marginal differences aren't driving your decision making anymore.

> Then you look at your friends in the rest of the country

But you don't need to go to the rest of the country, just step outside San Francisco city limits. Everything described in the second paragraph is pretty unique to San Francisco. Not something you really see in Silicon Valley proper.

Working remotely in an SF based company is the job offer imaginable if you also get SF salaries, but without having to live there.

Even if you land that it may not last. Salary cuts are also a trend. Enjoy it while you can.

A one bedroom apartment is perhaps the most unfavorable comparison (the housing stock is predominantly SFHs, so bedrooms in a shared home are a lot more plentiful than one bedrooms, which are usually in apartments), yet I see multiple listings for $2,200/mo in Redwood City, a fairly central part of the Bay. You don’t have to live in San Francisco, FYI, and even still your particularly dystopian portrait seems off the mark from my lived experience. And your COVID point makes no sense: the Bay Area has come out relatively better off in the pandemic than most other places.

A similar apartment in Austin would be around $1,300/mo. Is $10,000/yr really the difference between middling and “quite high” expectations for quality of life? How do you price access to a far more competitive market for your labor? Is it the state taxes, then, which push you over the edge?

You’re not getting a nice place for $2200/month in RWC compared to what that $1300/month would get you in Austin or whereever. For that amount, you’re next to the tracks and living in the ghetto in an uninsulated shitbox.

I'm nitpicking but it is demonstrably false that residents will feel no impact from water shortages. People who have lived through the last few droughts know this. They may cut agriculture, by far the majority water consumer in the state, but it will still mean restrictions on yard irrigation, car washing, bill increases, and constant nagging. Now, anyone who plants a lawn in CA needs to reexamine their priorities, but still, it is just one more quality of live impact from living in this state.

By far, the worst thing about the Bay Area is the stress level. This is not a comfortable place for the majority of the residents and it shows. Happiness is largely driven by one's expectations, and the marketing and image of CA drives those quite high. There is, I think, quite a bit of unhappiness arising from the CA image vs CA reality. On top of that, you are competing with other people trying to live that dream and working quite hard to do so.

I think CA still has many strong points, but if I wasn't paying a fixed alimony payment I would have sacrificed the higher income for more happiness and left years ago. I spent half my life here and enjoyed what I think were the last of the good times in CA.

> but it will still mean restrictions

In the East Bay, EBMUD has not ever imposed restrictions of any kind even in the severe droughts of the 70s. The most drastic action they have taken has been to raise marginal prices for large consumers, an altogether reserved response to drought. EBMUD's total water deliveries have fallen by one third in the last 50 years, despite the fact that the population in the service area has doubled, and current demand is only half of current supply. Municipal water is about the last thing someone in a Bay Area city needs to worry about.

What are you talking about? During the last drought there was a statewide mandate by Jerry Brown to stop watering your laws.

That's the sort of thing you might believe if you get all of your news from Fox News or Breitbart, but it has no basis in fact.

Yes, and did you read it? Nobody was ordered to stop watering their lawns.

Everyone on my street let their laws die but I guess that was muh far-right-wing conspiracy theory right?

I did say water for consumption. Lawns are a bad idea and should be replaced with artificial turf or low water grasses. In the droughts throughout the 2000s (I lived through all), water use was curbed down to some PSAs, penalties for watering yards, and shutoff of some public fountains. That is far from a scarcity situation.

I live on the peninsula. We were without power for days. Then, while our power was still out, we got notified that another power outage was coming. We didn’t even know if we’d get power back before the next outage and PGE’s communication was a fat joke and got worse as time went on. (At the beginning you could talk to a human who would give you fairly useful information. By then end it was automated and only the information you could already get online, which was nearly useless.) Our power came back for about a day and then was gone for days again.

Peninsula proper or more like La Honda? I don’t hear of people in San Carlos or Menlo Park losing power for a week.

Redwood City.

America is a very large country and lots of places have fantastic climates. Also seasons aren't a bad thing.

California has its problems but this seems a bit hyperbolic considering its hurricane season in the gulf coast

You forgot about the overhanging threat that the "Big One" earthquake might hit at any time.

> Why am I here?

Same reason people moved to places like Cleveland and Detroit in the past. For work.

I had two job offers with similar details. I took the one with a bigger number and have much less money as a result. IIRC it was 175 vs 125, or close enough not to matter and my figuring of which one was superior financially was just wrong. From the rent which doubled to the brief stint at a 4 hours per day commute, it was the wrong choice.

I know it’s not your job to fix everything, but if we keep running from problems, we’re going to run out of places to hide.

Sadly, when voting with your ballot fails to make any meaningful difference, you must choose to vote with your feet. I read something about the results (or perhaps projected results) of the US Census, wherein the major metro areas of TX were showing a >10% (maybe closer to 15% even?) increase in population, most of it from internal migrants.

Considering the strong economic growth of TX, perhaps it is more likely that people are running towards opportunity more than they are running away from problems: Housing is being built at a much higher rate than CA, and it is one of the big drivers of emigration from CA, aside from jobs.

“Strong economic growth of Texas”

Best 10 years not looking to hot, oil and gas is a shrinking industry

Texas today isn't Texas of the early 1980s, or Alberta today. Texas barely noticed the 2016 oil crash.

I think it's hard to make this argument in modern circumstances. I moved to a city for a good job. I don't agree with the city politically, my family isn't from here, I don't see this place as where I belong or fit in, and I don't expect to be here forever. If my city becomes unpleasant or unnecessary, I'm not going to fight to the bitter end. I'm going to bounce.

In pre-modern times, perhaps people had more of a connection and loyalty to where they live. I wouldn't know. To me city, state, or even country delineations feel somewhat unreal.

Another way to put it would be that I'm not running from the problems. I'm solving them. See: my problems aren't mismanagement of the city, rampant homeless, crime, smoke, high cost of living, etc - my problem is that I live in a city where all this stuff is, and I can solve that quite easily.

My "home" is my friends and family, even though we are distributed across the world now. I wouldn't run from my problems, even if they were geographically distant, but I'm not obliging myself to solve everyone's problems, even if they're geographically close.

People used to come to SF because they loved the city. The internet economy changed that, and it contributed to many of SF’s ills. I’m personally hopeful that once all the people leave that don’t like the city, that it’ll return to its natural equilibrium.

I'd like to think that too. I miss the old SF from the mid 90's. That said, you need only look at the rest of CA to realize it isn't just tech ruining SF. It's increased population, increased wealth, and increased mobility that is allowing coastal CA to grow beyond the suburban capacity that is baked in to the infrastructure. Sure, there are problems unique to SF, or at least the magnitude is unique, but CA as a whole has gone downhill.

I spent half my life in San Diego before coming to the Bay Area. It sucks there too compared to what it used to be.

You gotta ask yourself who's been in charge for the last 20 years and why do we continue to elect them?

Infrastructure is not an immutable factor of the landscape, we can and do change it frequently

To some degree yeah, but not enough to really change things. You can widen freeways and add a trolley line here and there, but no one, as far as I know, is bulldozing subdivisions of low-density housing and relaying out the road network. CA is trying half measures like allowing higher density redevelopment in suburbs and it makes things worse. The communities weren't designed for high density.

I left two years ago after a decade and it was the best decision I've ever made. Usually, the justification for living in SF is tech. With the pandemic, everything is online. I moved to Hong Kong (it has its own problems, but is still a million times better), and many of my friends have left for New York, Austin, or Europe. When I first moved out here, I had an effort to show up in SF to keep things productive. Since the new year and the pandemic, things have been going at full-speed entirely remotely with zero drawback.

Make the move. There's never been a better time.

I was talking about this same thing with someone the other day and they spoke about how a few years ago, SF only had 2-3 days a year that they felt the need for an AC and now it's more like 2-3 weeks every year. Same with number of days w/ wildfire smoke, sounds like it's going up over the last 10 years.

While I'm sure the wildfires are not entirely due to climate change (in fact there was one due to a party) but you've gotta assume global warming has a significant impact on the frequency and intensity of the fires.

For many people, the answer to that has always been work.

But with more and more companies now building an increasingly remote work force due to COVID, even that will soon be gone.

> The weather isn't nice

I disagree. No hurricanes, no floods, no need to remove snow, no need for AC most of the time, no mosquito season... Just some fog and some wind, that's all. No big problem.

> the air is poison

Yes, but this problem has only affected the city like this for the last 2 years or so (to this extent).

> Threats of water scarcity

Only for agriculture.

> electricity scarcity now

Only in the last 2 couple of years, and it has not affected all of San Francisco. Many districts in SF did not have a power outage this year.

> terrible social problems

That I can agree with entirely, especially homelessness and gentrification.

> expensive everything

There are many companies that are ready to take your money and make your life convenient. But if you ignore them, things can be affordable.

Also, many people moving out of the city all the time = a lot of free stuff on Craigslist. Need furniture? Get your free dining set (tables, chairs) from some wealthy random dude that doesn't have time to sell stuff.

> inability to really do anything with anyone

Meetup is a great place to do things and it is very active in SF. It's a good place to start.

> I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to live here over the last several years

Personal preferences and expectations have a lot to do with how much you spend. I've known people that live with roommaters and save most of their salary.

>> the air is poison

> Yes, but this problem has only affected the city like this for the last 2 years or so (to this extent).

As someone pointed out with an infographic on Twitter recently, before the Clean Air Act really began to take effect, the air quality was always like this in California summers, fires or not.


Not everyone can live with roommates --- folks with growing families for instance.

I think the concerns about the poisonous air and electricity scarcity are way overblown. The air is bad because the whole region is on fire, and that's not happened for a long, long time (sure, there are pockets of fire-ravaged regions at any point in the late summer, but it's not this widespread).

The really problematic issues are the wacko water usage (growing almonds? really?), the callous disregard of state politicians for folks who do not own homes (and are increasingly facing homelessness or crushing commutes), and the deep fiscal troubles the state finds itself in (because of a seeming inability to control spending and normalize property taxation). Schools (including UCs) are not functioning well for the majority of Californians (they have failed to provide a free/cheap education to state residents, which is the mandate of any state university, and Community Colleges are massively underfunded).

CA weather is not the best by a long shot, but most of the rest of the US has terrible weather (way worse than CA at any rate).

>Yes, but this problem has only affected the city like this for the last 2 years or so (to this extent).

I believe 3 of the last 4 years had the "largest fire season ever in California".

>Only for agriculture.

Not only for agriculture. I remember public service announcements everywhere about conserving water. I remember restaurants not giving me a glass of water unless I asked for it, I remember the constant pressure.

>Only in the last 2 couple of years, and it has not affected all of San Francisco. Many districts in SF did not have a power outage this year.

It doesn't really matter whether or not the power actually went off. I was bombarded with messaging about the moral imperative of conserving electricity and had to prepare for it going out anyway. Because they managed to scrape by does not mean they're reliable.

>There are many companies that are ready to take your money and make your life convenient. But if you ignore them, things can be affordable.

Yes, I could live more cheaply here, that's not the point. The point is things that I want are significantly more expensive here than anywhere. There's a lunch I like to get at a fast casual restaurant nearby that costs me $35 for just an entree and a side. Sure, I can and usually do make my own lunch, but I could get a lunch I enjoyed just as much in the last city I lived in for $17 easily.

>Personal preferences and expectations have a lot to do with how much you spend. I've known people that live with roommates and save most of their salary.

I maintained the quality of life, or tried, it's actually marginally worse here, and the cost is at least double. Yes, I could live with people, but I didn't have to in my last city and I don't have to here, I could indeed make many aspects of my life worse in order to make it cheaper to be here... but that's my point, everything here is worse.

And you know what? I like snow, I like cold, I like variety. I much preferred walking around Minneapolis at night on the few rare -40 degree evenings than I did walking to the store with an AQI of 200 in Mountain View. Enjoying the cold is a state of mind, salons around here even sell it as a therapy for god knows what kind of woo woo.

Considering the amount of media about San Francisco and red skies, you’d think that was the place that burned.

Any actual coverage of the fires and their real impact, lost of natural habitat, sinks into irrelevancy.

If a place burns and San Francisco doesn’t notice, do we still talk about it?

California has fairly hot, dry summers and a lot of trees; fires are going to happen fairly regularly. Everything in the ecosystem has evolved to deal with periodic fire, except for the humans and their trillion-dollar companies and multimillion-dollar houses. The fire isn’t the threat to the ecosystem; the humans are.

It is my understanding that the fires are unusually intense and a threat even to fire-adapted ecosystems.

in large part because the high fuel load from aggressive suppression efforts (some contribution from anthro temperature forcing)

indigenous fire management kept underbrush under control results in cooler fires.

The main issue is people think it's pretty to live in places that normally burn.

As someone who experienced the orange, this article doesn't do it justice. This was an extremely strange day.

The air quality was decent relative to the past month of wildfires. The air felt and smelled like normal fog: cool and slightly wet. We've had days in past years and many recently where the smoke would make the sun a slightly warmer color, but it was always close enough to normal that you could compensate for it in your mind.

September 9th was completely different. The world looked like a sepia-tone photograph. While the orange light was dimmer than normal, basically no blue light made it to the ground. You can't compensate for a complete lack of the higher wavelengths. When looking at the night sky, astronomers often illuminate their sky charts with red light so that their night vision isn't ruined. The same thing happened here, which made white lights extremely bright. And because the brain has some capacity to correct white balance, white lights were also blue. Being the only blue in the world, you could see all the places they were reflected. Blue was on a different layer from everything else.

It was basically night by 4pm, but what surprised me most was that seeing blue was an emotional experience. You know those videos where they give a colorblind person those glasses that let them see what they've been missing? That's what seeing blue was like. It was like seeing ultraviolet. It almost made you cry.

The only thing you could do was look up at the sky, and the only reaction you could have was emotional. There's a certain feeling you get when you know everyone has the same thing on their mind. It reminded me of 9/11: not as sad but just as pervasive. It was like every conversation was preceded by the unspoken lines, "The sky looks crazy today, doesn't it?" and "Never seen anything like it."

For more pictures and reactions, this twitter thread does a good job: https://twitter.com/EricaJoy/status/1303711062512943105

I'm curious, where did you grow up? Wildfires of this magnitude are rare, but the optical effects are not unheard of in the West.

What's the point of this article? I just read it and got nothing out of it.

I believe that the point of the article is to describe the experience of living in California during the wildfires to people who are not living the experience. The New Yorker magazine's readership is largely in New York—or so the magazine believes, since it has a special section describing what goes on in New York.

title to get you to click so they get ad venue

Expect more of these sorts of articles from NYC-based media. Whenever NYC gets insecure, its media starts churning out more articles like this about other parts of the country. Unfortunately, its knowledge of areas outside of the TriState area can be pretty spotty and superficial. If you want, you can be an intellectual smokejumper and correct some of the more egregious errors online.

to get people on the east coast more motivated about climate change

I'm from Europe and I'm confused about the cause of these recent big fires. Some news articles say it's because climate change, some other say it's due to bad forest maintenance.

Why are there so many of these fires lately?

Both are true. Fires are a natural part of the environment. When you constantly put out fires around urban areas a lot of the excess brush just builds up, inevitably causing the mega-fires we see today. Huge fires are not as common in Europe mainly because Europe doesn't have as many forests as the west coast of the US.

But there's also a ton of evidence that we've had some of the warmest years on record in the past decade. The fires around the Bay area were started by a record-breaking heatwave. And temperatures in the interior of California regularly get above 40 C during the summer, so that combined with no rainfall means a lot of fires every year

Thanks for asking, I wanted to ask exactly the same question. On the one hand, German public news stations basically imply that Trump is an idiot who denies climate change and climate change is the main reason for the fires. On the other hand, I read a lot of reports that this year's fires were much smaller than those 100 years ago and fires are mostly a natural thing that is just more or less controlled by humans, and climate change is just a small factor. It looks like even here it is impossible to get unbiased information on the US.


Interestingly today Trump / Gov. Newsom had this (not really an) argument at presser today. So there are now a lot of good articles



You’re likely being downvoted because of the way you stated your opinion, but I agree with the content. I actually really enjoy California—it’s such a beautiful state with a rich history (music, drugs, etc). I find that many of my coworkers don’t really like SF or California (no more than anywhere else) and it really kills the vibe here because they don’t appreciate what makes it special. I’ve already noticed some coworkers use corona as a good reason to move back to their hometown and I hope it continues.

Same. I moved to CA 16 years ago for work, with the past 10 years in SF, and I've been really happy. Things aren't perfect, by any means, but I really want to be here. There are obviously a lot of people who don't want to be here (perhaps they're only living here for work), and I'm not sorry to see people like that leave. I hope they find a place that makes them as happy as I am here, and I fundamentally believe that people who are invested in their community makes for a stronger, healthier place.


Name 10 things that have gotten better in California over the last 10 years.

As a tax paying citizen, it's perfectly valid to criticize the state for being poorly run and making things worse. If you can't handle the criticism then that's a different issue.

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