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November 16, 2017

Californian students react to wildfires back home

(Maciej Zyglarski/Flickr: Creative Commons)

University of Massachusetts sophomore Portuguese and sociology double major Isabel Alves de Lima went home to San Francisco for the long Columbus Day weekend. On the cool and breezy Sunday night, a window was open, and she could swear she smelled smoke.

“Do you smell that?” Lima asked her boyfriend, who said it was probably somebody barbecuing.

According to the Los Angeles Times’ latest report, the death toll of the Northern California fires has risen to 41 with that number expected to rise as searchers maneuver around neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and other areas of Wine Country. In addition to the many fires across Napa and Sonoma Valley, another fire burned more than 9,200 acres in Orange County, according to the L.A. Times.

Lima got on a plane back to the UMass the following morning, forgetting all about the weird smell until she saw the news.

“I was like ‘Oh shit, that’s what I was smelling,’” she said. She has kept informed through her boyfriend and family, who said the air was really smoky up until Tuesday. San Francisco State University and other schools in the area cancelled school because the air quality was so bad it was deemed unhealthy to be outside, according to Lima.

“It’s smoky, dark and overcast but it wasn’t fog. It was ash in the sky. Everyone’s wearing a mask outside. My boyfriend said that it felt post-apocalyptic,” Lima said.

Natalie Perreault, a junior pre-vet major, is from Palo Alto, California, about two hours away from Santa Rosa, where the fires are the worst. Perreault is worried about her friends, many of whom had to evacuate their homes or leave their schools.

“We’re pretty used to wildfires happening but not to the extent it’s been. The containment is like zero to five percent. It’s horrible…A lot of my friends and a lot of people I know had to evacuate or have lost their home. My family is actually taking care of certain families because they just don’t have a place to go,” Perreault said. Her friends sent pictures of a dark sky, and she’s getting notified from people further north asking if they can stay at her house for a while.

“When anything bad happens at home, of course, I want to be there and be there for my friends,” Perreault said. She added that it’s one thing if the fires were just contained to Napa, since wildfires occur up there often, and they’re used to dealing with it. The fact the fires are now so close to home is a lot scarier, she said.

UMass Department of Environmental Conservation associate professor Bethany Bradley said that there has been an increasing trend of large wildfires in the West that have been tied to climate change signals where there tends to be a lot more fires in hotter conditions.

“You can actually correlate the two quite well in terms of numbers of fires in a given year relative to antecedent climate conditions,” said Bradley, who also said that dry fuels coupled with hot temperatures can cause house fires to get out of control.

“In California specifically, it’s an interesting case because there are a couple of things going on in addition to that. One big thing is that humans are starting fires. California, especially in the Central Valley and areas around Santa Rosa, where these big fires have been burning, are not areas where you get lightning strikes,” Bradley said.

While there is not yet an attributed cause for these fires, Bradley’s guess is that they’re started by campfires or by people either deliberately or accidentally starting them. She said that human-started fires in addition to windy conditions can lead to the large, out-of-control fires that California is seeing.

Peter Murphy is a sophomore forest ecology major from Oakland, California. He personally was not affected but has friends whose houses were burned down by the series of fires. Over the summer, Murphy worked for the University of California Berkeley doing research where he would walk the burn zones of past fires. He said while fires tend to happen a lot in California, these ones are pretty rare because they happened so close to urban centers.

“Wildfires are a natural part of the environment in northern California. It’s just different to happen in big cities. It was dry, it was windy and it kind of blew up,” Murphy said.

Sophomore psychology and theatre double major Angela Medina is from Alhambra, California, which is out of the line of fires, yet she is worried for her brother and his family, who have recently moved to a region closer to the fires.

“My brother just moved out there with his family, so it was kind of like a huge deal. My mom is just very worried about him being far from us with the new family and with the fires going on,” Medina said.

Emma Robertson, a sophomore environmental science major, has experienced a significant amount of tragedy in the past few weeks. People from towns that are near her hometown died in the Las Vegas shooting, and now the fire in Anaheim is just an hour away from her home in Los Angeles. Mostly, she’s concerned about her friends who go to school in the Napa and Sonoma area, where classes were canceled.

Medina relates to that same struggle, because parts of her family were in Mexico during the recent earthquake.

“The shooting and natural disasters used to be like a small, little things that was a rarity when I was growing up. Then now, it’s like happening a lot,” Medina said.

Several UMass students from California wish they could be home to help.

“I want to be able to donate food, donate clothing and donate my time to people, but I can’t because I’m over here. There’s not too much I can do when I’m out here. I’m just trying to hear about what’s going on and stay informed and not be clueless even though I’m like super far away,” Lima said.

 

Caeli Chesin can be reached at mchesin@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @caeli_chesin.

 

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