The Personal Toll of the California Wildfires

Photo of a ping pong table covered in ash taken on September 9th. Photo credit: Kumalo Alm

According to CNN, wildfires have burned an area around the size of Connecticut, or 3.6 million acres, in California in 2020 alone. With a new heatwave and high wind speed, more fires are on the way. Urban’s proximity to some of the fires means that many Urban students know people who have had to evacuate or take precautions to protect themselves.
Living in the Bay Area during “wildfire season” generally means a couple of days of poor air quality and smokiness. This year, however, it has been entirely different. According to a high school student from Davenport, a town near Santa Cruz, an “orange glow came over the mountains the whole day.”

Photo of church with orange sky taken on September 9th. Photo credit: Kumalo Alm

This, coupled with intense smoke, created a hot and scary week for the entire West Coast.
When I was thinking about what angle I would take with this article, it became apparent to me that I knew a lot of people affected by the wildfires. My grandmother, Kathy Peters, lives in Quincy, California. For multiple weeks now, there have been two separate fires close to her home. During one fire, she had to evacuate because of an advisory evacuation. Luckily she did not have to leave her house for long, but the constant AQI (air quality index) measurements of 300 plus have been suffocating, forcing her to stay in her house for days.

Earlier this summer, when my family visited her house, we went swimming and camping on the Middle Fork river, which has burned down in the past month. As a San Franciscan, I’m lucky we don’t live in those places ravaged by fires, but they are still close to my heart. The Middle Fork canyon is narrow and full of trees and greenery, nature that no longer exists. The whole area will feel different, and I’m not looking forward to seeing all that has burned.
A family friend from Davenport named Kumalo Alm was also forced to evacuate because of the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire. According to Alm, “there was a wildfire that was burning up in the mountains and we had to evacuate for about a week and the fire actually ended up getting close to our house.”

Now, I know I have been unhappy with the air quality as of recently, but I can’t even imagine having to worry for a week about your friends, family, and belongings. When asked about what he brought with him when he evacuated, he said, “we mostly just brought like, irreplaceable things, like mementos and paintings from our friends.”
The aspect of the fires that I feel is being overlooked is the human aspect; the labor of firefighters across multiple states, the farmworkers continuing to work despite the smoke, the people losing friends, family, and property and the smoke keeping millions inside for weeks. Viewing the fires from a personal angle enables us to sympathize with people we might not otherwise think about.