‘More dangerous every year’: 5C students face California wildfires

A lot that a fire has burned through. The house that existed before has been reduced to ashes and rubble. The remains of a sink and oven are visible.
With blazes burning throughout the state, 5C students on the West Coast were among those who experienced firsthand the effects of the record-breaking fire season. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

California residents up and down the coast have been visited by the hazy orange skies and thick layers of smoke that marked this year’s wildfire season, the worst on record, which had burned over 2.2 million acres as of Sept. 20 and has seen the largest recorded wildfire in California’s history.

With blazes burning throughout the state, 5C students on the West Coast were among those who experienced firsthand the effects of the record-breaking fire season.

David Gorman PO ’24 was working in Modesto, California when wildfires caused by lightning started burning in early August.

“I went outside to my car and there was ash all over it. I had to wipe it off every time I needed to drive somewhere just so that I could see outside my windows,” Gorman said. “The skies were completely orange, and you could barely see anything in the smoke.”

The poor air quality caused by the fires prompted Gorman to leave Modesto and spend a weekend with his parents who live in Monterey, California.

But Gorman was unable to make the two-and-a-half-hour journey there.

“I literally couldn’t get to them — all the roads and highways were closed down in the very area where I had to travel through,” Gorman said. 

Although the situation in Monterey wasn’t much safer than the one in Modesto — in Monterey, the Carmel, River and Dolan fires continued to burn — Gorman’s family stayed put despite an evacuation advisory, having made precautionary arrangements to stay with family elsewhere.

“We planned on mainly saving personal and sentimental things that meant a lot to us and had been in the family for a long time,” Gorman said. “Luckily, we had just moved into that house, so everything in their house was still packed up in boxes, and they could just throw them in the car.”

For Gorman, fires are just a part of living in California. 

“It was definitely a little scary, but that’s life. I’m practically tone-deaf to the fires. I just assumed that everything would be fine, and even if something went bad, they would be alright … Obviously, looking back, I was a bit more serious than that, but I didn’t think much of it at the time,” Gorman said. 

For Maxwell Fine CM ’21, the wildfires also hit remarkably close to home this year. The LNU Complex fires caused Fine and his family to evacuate their home in Napa Valley in late August. 

“We were no more than four to five miles away from the LNU Complex fires. We did not know where the fires would spread … We did not receive an evacuation order, but were under evacuation warning for roughly two weeks,” Fine told TSL via email.

Despite never receiving an evacuation notice, the air quality was poor enough that Fine and his family decided to preemptively evacuate. 

“At one point, I could not see more than 10 feet out of my window, and it smelled like I was sitting in the woods at a campfire,” Fine said. “Our surroundings were obfuscated by smoke with general darkness and slight red glow.”  

Fine spent the first week of classes living in a hotel in Ashland, Oregon, a five-hour drive from his home. 

“I took enough clothes to last two weeks and packed a separate bag with items that I wanted to keep in case everything burned down,” Fine said.

This wasn’t Fine’s first experience with a wildfire — a blaze in 2017 left a lasting impression.

“I felt uneasy about the whole process because I knew how lucky my family had been three years ago during the Atlas Peak Fire,” Fine said.

The Oct. 2017 Atlas Peak Fire burned close to Fine’s residence in Napa Valley. Fine was in Claremont during the time of the fire and his parents were in San Francisco, so no one was hurt, but his community was severely affected. 

“For about a week, we had no idea if our house was still standing or if it had burned down. Luckily, our house narrowly escaped burning down, but several of our neighbors’ residences did burn,” Fine said. “We sustained significant smoke damage, but we were incredibly lucky compared to others in our community, who lost nearly everything.” 

Fine’s personal experiences with wildfires inspired him to become a student manager at Claremont McKenna College’s Roberts Environmental Center and advocate for environmental issues. 

“The environment is one of my main academic interests. Climate change is always on my mind,” Fine said. “While wildfires are a part of nature, the extent and number of them are undeniably tied to climate change … Fire season is growing longer and more dangerous every year, and I am worried that there is not going to be any reprieve.”

Gorman also attributed his passion for environmental advocacy to the wildfires he experiences annually. Seeing their impact on his home has shown him the all-too-real impact of climate change.

“[Worsening wildfires are] a clear indication of climate change and a need for actual legislation concerning the environment and environmental protection to be passed,” Gorman said. “I can definitely see myself joining clubs and participating in events related to environmental advocacy to do my part.”

Em Kuhn’s PZ ’22 passion for climate change was also sparked when the California wildfires hit home in 2017, impacting their community in Santa Barbara and Ojai, California.

“I was already pretty passionate about environmental advocacy and that was a turning point for me … I had a responsibility to educate people, not only on a crisis itself and connecting to extreme weather events, but also on solutions specifically to mitigating large scale fires like the ones we saw,” Kuhn said. “At that point, I began learning about preventative practices employed by indigenous communities traditionally.”

Kuhn helps lead Sunrise Claremont Colleges, the 5C chapter of a youth-led, national organization aimed at combating the climate crisis through the promotion of a Green New Deal. The group highlights the wildfires as an opportunity to drive home the urgency of the issues that they and Sunrise are advocating for.

“The wildfires come as a reminder of the larger necessity of environmental movements in general, to really ask ourselves who we are centering in our advocacy and who is on the frontlines of this crisis. The fires are a devastating opportunity for this conversation to be placed at the center of attention,” Kuhn said.

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