Northern California fires burn ’Cats’ neighborhoods

Olivia Gomez, Staff writer

She was at a friend’s house for the night when the calls flooded her friend’s cellphone. It was 2 a.m. and they needed to evacuate immediately.

The power had gone out, so they could not learn what was going on from the news. But they didn’t need to—outside their window raged a piercing red sky.

Junior Lindsay Fowler had been with her family in Sebastopol, California, for fall break when the fires in Sonoma County that began on Oct. 8 got dangerously close. When she left her friend’s house early that next morning, she watched the flames tear through the trees behind her as the traffic crawled down the only road back home.

At least 36 people across four counties were killed as of Friday, The Washington Post reported. The more than 20 fires have been the most deadly California has ever seen.

By Friday night, the fires in Sonoma County had hit more than 2,000 buildings, most of them homes, according to The Press Democrat.

Senior Hayden Cooksy lives in Placerville, which is about an hour outside of Sacramento, California. The fires have not affected his friends and family, but hearing of the damage occurring in Santa Rosa reminded him of the King Fire that damaged El Dorado County in 2014, which destroyed almost 100,000 acres.

But the fires that make national news are far from the only fires Northern California residents live with.

Cooksy said he experienced countless Spare the Air Days throughout his childhood and adolescence when the smoke was so dense it dramatically decreased visibility and air quality.

He remembers seeing planes circling overhead when he was in grade school, dropping flame retardant around the area on a seemingly weekly basis. California is just hot, dry and smoky, he said.

Kailey Wright, a senior who grew up in Santa Rosa but now lives three hours away in Colfax, feels the same. “I can’t remember a summer when we didn’t have smoke in the air,” she said.

Even though seeing smoke has been normalized, the North Bay’s weeklong blaze instilled fear in her. She said hearing about the fire that eventually devoured her old neighborhood gave her nightmares.

These blazes are different, Cooksy said in agreement, because bushy overgrowth or trees do not fuel them.

“The main fuel in this fire is homes.”

Since the fuel is different, and because the smoke diminishes visibility, Cal Fire firefighters must vary their tactics to contain the flames, Wright said. Instead of turning to aircrafts to drop chemicals on burning neighborhoods, they turn to back burning.

A fire won’t burn the same area twice, so firefighters will get ahead of it and burn the potential fuel around its perimeter. This tactic has proven controversial, though, because the fuel is homes; Cooksy said some people believe Cal Fire is targeting their neighborhoods.

Strong winds also make containing a fire difficult. “It’s like an animal with its own kind of mind,” Cooksy said. The flames can jump over the back-burnt areas, causing more destruction than firefighters anticipated.

Cooksy learned about firefighting from his father and through news reports, but wildfires were also an integral part of his coming of age. The constant smoke and bi-monthly fire drills he experienced as a child motivated him to learn more.

Wright also remembers fire drills and smoke, but said that lacking the same level of experience with wildfires does not give students from Oregon and Washington an excuse to be ignorant.

“If you’re not from California, you don’t know,” she said. She was disappointed by how many other students are uninformed, and said that people neglecting to read or watch the news has made them oblivious to what others are going through.

“This is a neighboring state,” Wright said. “This is where people are from.”

Cooksy, an environmental policy major, criticized the United States government’s tendency to act only after disaster strikes, citing the response to Hurricane Irma. He said disaster prevention and preparation need to be the focus, especially where wildfires are concerned.

Despite all the destruction and loss caused by the North Bay fires, there is a small silver lining. In her area, so many people wanted to help that organizations had to turn volunteers and donations away, Fowler said, calling it “heartwarming.”

Cooksy agreed. “It does bring out the good of some people.”