California is facing the worst parts of fire season. The three biggest fires began Oct. 15 as residents of Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa counties were forced to evacuate. The 20 separate blazes that have swept through the region make up the deadliest wildfire on record in California, according to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Elena Lev SC ’21, a resident of Sonoma County, returned home over fall break to a site of blazed destruction. Lev’s family lives five miles away from the heart of the Sonoma fire and did not have to evacuate, but some of her friends had to seek shelter at the local high school, community centers, or churches.
“This is truly one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced,” Govenor Jerry Brown said at a press conference on Oct. 16.
Strong winds between 50 and 79 miles per hour and an abundance of dry vegetation allowed the fires to spread over an area of 170,000 acres. So far, there have been at least 42 deaths from these fires, making it one of the deadliest fires in the state’s history.
Local police and fire departments have been establishing connection channels with families of the missing. More than 280 are still missing, but about 20,000 people who were forced to evacuate have begun to return. By Wednesday morning, about 80 percent of the fire had been contained.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said that high winds, elevated temperatures, and low humidity were key to the rapid spread of conflagrations in the Sonoma Valley.
“What continues to baffle me is why local governments ignore this clear and present danger [of inhabitants living in dangerous fire zones], pressing ahead with development schemes that ratchet up the danger. [Adding] years of climate-fueled drought into the mix, we should not be surprised that the fire season is now a twelve-month-long event,” Miller wrote in an email to TSL.
Mass destruction of the landscape, buildings, and residences took a great toll on the Sonoma Valley area.
“We all wear masks when going outside now because the air quality is really poor,” Lev wrote in an email to TSL. “The community has come together in a remarkable way,” she added. “All schools in the county have been closed this past week, and the kids have poured themselves into the volunteer opportunities.”
The evacuation centers near Lev’s residence have received donations of pet carriers, books, and games, and many residents are volunteering at the closest evacuation centers. For now, residents aren’t focusing on rebuilding.
“We're all still recuperating and picking up the pieces,” Lev wrote.
In an area where earthquakes are the most common natural disaster, the fires surprised county residents. First responders and neighbors traveled door to door to alert residents to the fires as they began.
“My family didn't have much of an established fire plan,” Lev wrote. “Because we are in an earthquake-heavy area, that’s what we planned for.”
Fire departments in southern California have been increasing awareness on this issue, and Campus Safety has re-examined its wildfire emergency protocol, especially after the Bernard Field Station brush fire in May.
The chance of a wildfire originating from one of the campuses is slim, Director of Campus Safety Stan Skipworth said. However, if there was a brush fires on or near campus, Campus Safety would evacuate the community if necessary, according to its safety directives.
“Campus Safety would remain in close contact with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, the California Department of Forestry, and the Claremont Police Department to make sure we have the most current information,” Skipworth said.
According to Marc Los Huertos, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, the Claremont Colleges are quite fire resistant. But even though “there are defensible spaces, a lot of irrigated land, and very few wood buildings … it is incorrect to say that the Claremont Colleges are immune to fire,” he said.
Los Huertos suggested a few things students need to be concerned about. “First, make sure that if there is a fire, students should stay indoors and avoid breathing smoke because it is a dangerous carcinogen. If there is an evacuation order, you should take that seriously and move quickly,” Los Huertos said.
He also advises students to be familiar with the on-campus emergency response flip-charts and establish meeting points near the colleges where their family can contact them when communication channels fail.
For students living close to forests and areas of high wildfire risks, Los Huertos recommends them to have an emergency backpack that they can grab to-go in an immediate situation, especially at this time of the year when the Santa Ana winds can quickly severe any small fire.