Wildfires Devastate California

“Just ash and bone.” Four haunting words spoken by Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano regarding the state in which civilians have been recovered from the aftermath of the horrific blazes ravaging Northern California. Cropping up in the span of just four days — Oct. 8 to Oct. 11 — seventeen fires have turned the once idyllic counties of Napa, Sonoma, and others in the region into charred wastelands where almost no life remains.

Despite valiant efforts from firefighters to halt the spreading blazes, the geography of California unfortunately works in favor of the fires. Hot and dry winds called Diablos in Northern California and Santa Anas in Southern California gust regularly up to 80 miles per hour, something which in a state with mountain passes and arid valleys, is a huge detriment. When these gusts blow through narrow areas and towards coastal regions where they gain speed, the flames are only fanned further.

The crux of these wildfires, however, is not the 5,500 or more structures destroyed, nor is it the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and wildlife scorched — it is the number of human lives lost. As of Sunday, Oct. 16, there are 41 confirmed deaths and hundreds more missing. It has also been confirmed that the average age of those killed by the blazes is 75, a harrowing reminder that nature gives no quarter to any demographic at any time.

“I’ve seen the wildfires in Anaheim Hills, actually,” Shelby Sant ‘19, who traveled to California in this past week, said. “I saw the fire up on one of the hills and all of the smoke from it. But I was very fortunate that the day before I got there, my grandparents, who we were visiting, were evacuated; we were all safe. They’re luckily back in their home now too.”

Recently, the main cause of the wildfires has been discovered: faulty electrical equipment. This human error is responsible for twice as many acres of burned forest than the second largest option —  general equipment use. While there will surely be future campaigns to help reduce these unfortunate errors, efforts are now focused purely on rescuing those trapped in the destroyed areas and stopping the blazes themselves. In fact, rescue efforts are reaching such dire limits that it has been decreed that anyone in the resort area of Calistoga is subject to arrest if they do not evacuate.

“The air quality in California right now is as bad as Shanghai and Hong Kong; it’s like the smog in those places,” Sant said. “The sun looked red with how bad the smoke was.”

This week has so far been the deadliest week for wildfires in California’s history, and with winds expected to pick up following Oct. 17, the toll of death and destruction is projected to rise even further. The only hope for those still in the zones at risk is for the winds to lessen in intensity, or else the firefighters, who are already exhausted from battling a constant blaze, will likely not have enough resources to continue on at their current rate.

“People are getting mad that some places weren’t evacuated sooner, but they don’t realize how fast the fire spreads. Especially with the Santa Ana winds over there now, the fire actually spreads in just seconds,” Sant said.

It’s true; these fires claim acres of land in just the blink of an eye. On Saturday, Oct. 14, the Tubbs fire, one of the many blazes rampaging across California, consumed the town of Santa Rosa in just four hours from the time that it started, leaving some sleeping residents with only several minutes to evacuate their homes and flee the area.

Fortunately, the 11,000 firefighters in Northern California have managed to gain a bit of ground in the past few days, allowing some Californians to return to what little they have left, which is not much in most cases. For those affected in this catastrophe, there is little to do now but secure safety for themselves and their families, and to hope for relief in this startling situation.

Donations and charitable efforts to assist those who have lost their homes, valuables, and more in this tragedy can be made out to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or many other organizations.