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Harvard Students Recall Loss, Fear, Hope After California Wildfires

Camp Fire Smoke
A haze hangs behind San Francisco City Hall on Nov. 8, 2018, hours after smoke from the devastating Camp Fire in California first reached the city.

Two historically deadly wildfires began to devastate cities in Northern and Southern California in early November, worrying undergraduates from throughout the state as they watched the unpredictable firestorm wreak havoc from thousands of miles away.

The most recent reports indicate that both the “Camp Fire” in Northern California and the “Woolsey Fire” in Southern California are 100 percent contained, after raging for several weeks.

Brenden T. Rodriquez ’20, a native of Agoura Hills, said his family lost their home to the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. A day after the fire started, his family was forced to evacuate, asking Rodriquez what he wanted from the house and bringing all they could carry, but ultimately not taking a lot.

“Growing up in California, you’re used to wildfires. I’ve seen some from my house off in the distance where you can see the flames,” he said. “But you were never really worried that it was actually going to come through, so I think that subconsciously they were like ‘We’re going to evacuate and then we’re going to come back eventually,’ and that just didn’t happen.”

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Rodriquez said it was difficult being thousands of miles away during the storm. Though, he noted he was grateful to travel back to California this Thanksgiving and sift through what was left of his childhood home.

“That was actually really soothing, getting to go through everything. I wanted to find at least one thing that was recognizable that I could take with me” he said.

The wildfires have damaged more than 250,000 acres of land and destroyed tens of thousands of structures in both parts of the state, leaving thousands of Californians homeless. In Northern California, 85 people have died and hundreds more remain unaccounted for.

Suffering some of the most extreme damage, the city of Paradise was leveled, making the Camp Fire California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire to date. In Southern California, the Woosley Fire forced residents throughout the region to evacuate immediately. The fire started less than a day after the Thousand Oaks Shooting took 12 people's lives in that same area.

Rodriquez said he was grateful for the administrators and professors who reached out to him, as well as his fellow students who provided support throughout the past couple of weeks. In a discussion with a blockmate, Rodriquez said he offhandedly mentioned that he wished he had brought his record player to Cambridge before the fire. Soon after, his blockmate organized a fundraiser to replace the record player he had lost.

“I’ve been very thankful to have found families here that were very helpful,” he said. “It was just nice to know there were people here too as well as back home.”

Air quality throughout California has also deteriorated due to the blaze. In recent weeks, Northern California had the worst air quality in the world, according to Purple Air, an air monitoring network. Olivia A. Sison ’21 said while no buildings have burned down in her hometown of Sacramento, the extremely hazardous air quality worried her family. Due to the wildfires, the Bay Area issued public health warnings, residents were urged not to go outside, and many schools, businesses, and universities shuttered their doors.

“It was pretty traumatic seeing how smogy the air was and that you couldn’t even see the buildings anymore,” Sison said. “That was really really frightening because my whole family is there and I obviously don’t want them breathing in these particles that are carcinogenic.”

“It was a very hopeless feeling just being here and not being able to physically be there,” she continued.

As Thanksgiving break approached, the fires began to abate, but Sison and Justin D. Mack ’22 both did not spend Thanksgiving at their homes in Northern California. Mack, a Los Altos native, said instead of going back home for Thanksgiving, members of his family came to Boston to celebrate with local relatives and escape the smog.

“The closest fire [to Los Altos] was the Camp Fire, which is 200 miles to the north almost, and it still had a huge disruption of daily life for them,” Mack said.

The wildfires have served as flashpoints for numerous national debates, including climate change, California’s housing crisis, inmate labor, and the ethics of hiring private firefighters for personal protection.

In relation to the housing crisis, Sison pointed towards the amount of fundraising she has seen on Facebook.

“It was incredibly sad to see all the GoFundMe’s on Facebook trying to make up for what had been lost.” she said. “It’s sad that we don’t have anything in place to actually help these people other than GoFundMe accounts.”

When discussing the aftermath, Rodriquez said that his family is planning to rebuild.

“I think the the community is going to come back even stronger than it was before, and it’s kind of a tough time to be in the Valley right now with the shooting and the fire right after, but I was blessed to not have lost anyone,” he said. “Family comes first, you can replace things, like every physical thing is going to be replaced, but you can’t replace family.”

Rodriquez said he optimistically points to a favorite movie quote — from the 2008 film “Bottle Shock” — when he thinks about the disaster.

“We’re all a little stronger in the broken places,” he said.

—Staff writer Ruth A. Hailu can be reached at ruth.hailu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ruthahailu.

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