Wildfires devastate California communities

Wildfires devastate California communities

Grace Reeder

On Oct. 9, many Whittier College students saw billowing clouds of smoke rising high into the Los Angeles sky. The smoke was from the fire in Anaheim Hills, also known as the Canyon 2 Fire. The fire burned more than 9,200 acres and destroyed or damaged nearly 60 homes in Anaheim Hills. As of Oct. 17, firefighters say that the Canyon 2 fire is 100 percent contained. However, other fires in northern California have continued to blaze. Currently, there are 11,000 firefighters fighting the fatal fires in Wine Country which have wreaked havoc in the area and caused widespread evacuations. 

Whittier College hosts a significant number of students from northern California, with quite a few of them living in the directly affected areas. Rika Drew-King, a third-year from Napa, CA, was incredibly thankful that her mom did not have to evacuate from her home, although some of her friends who were not as lucky. 

“(I have) so many friends who . . . were in neighboring towns and even different states, because that’s where they had to stay after being evacuated from their homes,” said Drew-King. She said that one of the hardest things to see was the damage to the beautiful scenery where she’s from. Napa and the surrounding areas make up what is known as wine country, well-known for their massive vineyards and beautiful scenery. The area attracts thousands of tourists each year, who come from far and wide to see the crops and the beautiful views. When Drew-King first heard about the fires, she was terrified for her friends and family in the area, but she was also saddened at the thought of Napa’s “main selling point [going] completely up in flames.” The vineyards are one of the main sources of income in the area. 

Bella Mejos, a second-year from Rohnert Park, CA, saw first-hand how the fires devastated the community she grew up in. Despite the town staying relatively safe (with only a few precautionary evacuations) due to its location in a valley, Mejos and her family saw every surrounding town on fire. There was always a chance that it could spread down the hills, especially given the high winds in the state over the weekend, but, luckily, that did not happen. However, some of Mejos’ closest friends and family were not so lucky. 

Mejos described that one of the hardest parts of this whole experience has been seeing “friends lose everything,” since there were so many neighborhoods that were completely wiped out by the fire. Mejos’s middle school completely burned down as did a barn in a nearby town that had been standing since the 1800s. Mejos said the personal connection to such a horrific event has been really hard to come to terms with, as the area she knew and loved has become unrecognizable. Mejos also stated that after living in Sonoma County her entire life, “seeing everything [she knows] gone in a matter of days is absolutely mind blowing.”

Drew-King said that one of the things that has helped keep her positive the past week was seeing the relief efforts. She said, “It’s incredible that even without help from our president, this country can actually be helpful and supportive and productive . . . we owe [the firefighters and first responders] everything.” There is a map being shared on social media that shows how many states have sent aid to California in response to the fires, which Drew-King thought was “amazing to see,” as it showed the resiliency and comradery in response to the destruction. 

On Oct. 10, Dean of Students Joel Pérez sent out an email to the Whittier College community addressing the many fires happening throughout the state of California. The email included the resources available to students who have been impacted by the fire. If students need “any assistance or support” they were asked to “contact the Dean of Students Office,” Pérez wrote. 

While Drew-King’s boss at school checked in to see how she was doing, she felt the response from the school was not enough. “We got an email from the Dean of Students office, but that was about it,” Drew-King said in response to the email Joel Pérez sent out on Oct. 9. It is important that the school has resources available for students during events like the wildfires, as these can be very traumatic time in which focusing on their studies seems almost impossible. Mejos said it was especially difficult for her to go on social media or watch the news, since the constant cycle of news about the latest destruction made it even harder for her to focus in classes last week. However, Mejos’ professors were incredibly understanding and helpful during the initial chaos of the fires. One of her closest friends from home lost her house after narrowly escaping the fast-moving flames. It quickly engulfed entire neighborhoods, burning them to the ground in a matter of minutes. Those that chose to stay behind despite evacuation orders found themselves running for their lives as flames chased quickly behind them. 

The fires have the characteristics of a southern California fire, driven by hot, dry winds. According to University of California fire specialist Max Mortiz the fires have similarities to a “massive Southern California Santa Ana wind event,” said during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Those dry, hot winds created new fires in northern California over the weekend and prompted a Red Flag Warning for fires in the southern portion of the state. 

The fires in northern California are the deadliest and most destructive in state history. As of Tuesday, Oct. 17, there were 15 fires being fought in northern California. Some neighborhoods were entirely wiped out around the Santa Rosa area; the fire has displaced thousands of people. The fires have, as of Tuesday morning, destroyed 6,700 structures in the area and are burning over 245,000 acres of land. On Saturday, Governor Jerry Brown stated that the fires were “one of the greatest” tragedies the state has ever witnessed. The fires have claimed over 40 lives, with 10 counties being severely affected by the fires. The death count is expected to rise as officials and victims begin to sift through the devastation. 

The two biggest fires are the Tubbs and Pocket fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, and the Atlas fire in Napa and Solano counties. The Tubbs fire between Calistoga and Santa Rosa has reached 36,432 acres and is 82 percent contained. The Pocket fire is a part of the Tubbs fire and is north of Geyserville. It has burned 12,430 acres and is 58 percent contained. The Atlas fire has burned 51,064 acres and is 77 percent contained. Both fires started on Oct. 8, and have continued to blaze across northern California. However, the Tubbs fire claimed 5,100 structures by itself, making it the single most destructive wildfire in California history.