Devastating Wildfires Hit Home for Californian Students

At first, Emily M. Lu ’21 thought the text message she received from her dad on Monday morning was a joke: It said that their house in Santa Rosa, Calif. had burned down.

“You don’t expect something like that to just happen overnight,” Lu said.

Lu is one of thousands of Californians—and dozens of Harvard students—affected by the wildfires currently scouring the northern part of the state. Flames started tearing through Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties on Monday, killing several, injuring dozens, destroying countless structures, and ravaging more than 120,000 acres of land in one of the biggest wildfires in California’s history.

“I am born and raised in the heart of Santa Rosa. That’s the place I love more than anything, and the place I’ve probably been the most affected by,” said Cesar J. Farias Jr. ’19.

Now, most of his hometown has been reduced to ash, he said. “It’s something you can’t really understand until something this catastrophic happens to you, your family, and your community.”

The fires began in the middle of the night and have continued burning for days; they are currently only minimally contained.

Fortunately, many residents were able to evacuate their homes by car, bus, and on foot. Many had just enough time to get out and grab a only few belongings.

Isabelle Mieling, a School of Public Health student from Sonoma, Calif., said her family was lucky: They were given enough time for her mother to gather the “documents hardest to replace.”

But now, widespread power outages in the region have made it difficult for students to get in touch with their displaced family members. “Everyone’s reaching out, and Napa has lost power and cell service, so people were posting about family members they were trying to reach. It’s been really hard to think about anything else,” Mieling said.

Lu said she’s received support from proctors, Peer Advising Fellows, and administrators. “The day after I told my proctor that my house burned down, she told the Dean, and they were like, ‘hey, we’ll help you out,” she said.

Laurel R. McCaull ’18, a Sonoma County native, started a GoFundMe to support shelters and relief centers in Northern California, which has so far raised over $4,000.

Despite the devastation, Farias said he’s holding onto hope.

“It’s a tough place with resilient people that come together no matter what background,” he said. “If anyone was to make the best out of the situation and attack it head on, it would be my community.”

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