As the fires die down in California’s wine country, the impact of their devastation continues to be felt by members of the Loyola community.
The Northern California wildfires began burning Oct. 8-9, spreading across Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino and Butte counties following gusts of wind as powerful as 79 mph. Burning approximately 245,000 acres and destroying 8,400 structures, the 15 wildfires decimated neighborhoods, schools and businesses, according to Cal Fire, a governmental department.
The fires were both the most destructive and deadliest in state history, killing 42 people.
When Loyola senior Yazzy Payne, a biology major, woke up Oct. 9, she received news she never expected: her hometown of Santa Rosa was on fire.
“I was laying in bed and I got a text from one of my old high school friends asking if my family was okay,” the 22-year-old said. “I was completely shocked and I had no idea what was happening. I’ve lived my entire life in Santa Rosa and nothing like this has ever happened.”
A total of 100,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes that night, including Payne’s mother. While her home survived the fire, many in her neighborhood weren’t as lucky.
“Apparently the fire was only a couple streets over and my mom was getting worried,” Payne said. “She packed up seven suitcases, took my brother, and found an Airbnb in a city further south to stay. She told me ‘You should be really worried.’ My mom would never tell me that unless I really had to be.”
English major Maggie Rei had a similar experience. However, she was studying abroad in Ireland, 5,000 miles away from home.
“My parents held off telling me for the longest time because they didn’t want to worry me,” the 20-year-old said in a phone interview with The Phoenix. “My dad sent me a long text saying that they had evacuated but that they were okay.”
Rei’s home was also spared by the fire, but she came close to being one of the many families displaced by the disaster. A fire erupted in a regional park only a block away from her home posing a severe risk.
In response, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), tried to create controlled fires at the edge of the park, only a block away from Rei’s home. At this point, the fire was zero percent contained.
“They had no idea whether those fires were going to stay controlled or not,” Rei said. “It was really close and people in the neighborhood around the corner lost their homes.”
Even the local hospitals, including Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional, were threatened by the flames, forcing 200 patients to evacuate in the middle of the night.
Payne’s mother, who works at Kaiser Permanente, was one of the many staff that helped evacuate the hospital, moving patients onto buses and ambulances that would move them to a safer location.
“The fire was surrounding the entire hospital and my mom was helping evacuating patients all night,” Payne said. “There was a mobile home park behind the hospital with gas tanks and when the fire reached it there were explosions all night. I was freaking out about my mom because she is all that I have.”
While Payne and Rei’s families, along with other evacuees, were able to return to their homes, 22,000 people still remain displaced. Around 3,900 people have found shelter in the 43 evacuation centers in the area, while others have found support amongst their tight-knit community.
“Everyone in the community has been so loving and caring and empathetic,” Rei said. “We have had several family friends who have opened their homes [to my parents] to stay, take a hot shower and have good food.”
Wildfire victims require a strong support system while facing the intense feelings that strike when property and safety are threatened, according to the American Psychological Association.
While no students have reached out so far, David deBoer, a psychologist at Loyola’s Wellness Center, said students should know that the staff is open to talk with anyone about their experiences regarding the wildfires as well as any of the other major natural disasters, such as hurricanes Harvey or Irma.
“The news often are (sic) all too full of distressing events,” deBoer said. “For those who reach out, we do offer the full range of our services, which includes group and individual counseling.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Oct. 9, guaranteeing direct aid to individuals and families. Brown also secured a presidential major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump, securing federal funding and support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help fight the fires and begin rebuilding.
The damage from the Northern California fires totals between $3 billion and $6 billion, but the number could rise, according to RMS, a catastrophe risk modeling company.
As the 8,400 homes and businesses lost in the fire begin reconstruction, which will take years to complete, it isn’t clear where many of these families will stay in the meantime. Many may be forced to leave the area and their hopes of rebuilding behind.
Rei said being so far away from home in a time of such great uncertainty is difficult, but she is confident the strong spirit of her community will see it through the tough times ahead.
“Wine country is definitely a tourist destination but is also a place where people work really hard and love each other,” Rei said. “There are a lot of people who are in shelters that are not doing okay or don’t have the resources to do okay. I’m disheartened by that but I’m thankful for the community and that there are people out there helping.”