‘FIRES ARE A CONSTANT WORRY’
As Califonia battles raging wildfires in the aftermath of a mass shooting , Irish people living there describe their experiences
Wildfires have ripped through California over the past 10 days, killing dozens of people and destroying thousands of homes. Irish people living around the state have been sharing their experiences with Irish Times Abroad.
James Claffey, Carpinteria: ‘We almost lost our home in the mudslides’
Last December my family was evacuated from the raging Thomas Fire. We almost lost our home in the mudslides that destroyed dozens of homes in nearby Montecito, and caused the deaths of 22 people including 17-year-old Jack Cantin, a student from Santa Barbara High School where I teach.
We are currently under evacuation warning again as the impending winter rain threatens more mudslides. The nearby wildfires in Ventura County and Malibu are turning what was once a distinct fire season into an all-year-long nightmare. Add to the fires the mass shooting in close by Thousand Oaks last week and the close-knitted local communities meld together in a shared grief.
The senseless murders that took place at the Borderline Bar & Grill struck especially close to home, because one of my daughter Maisie’s classmates lost her half-brother in the shootings.
Brendan Crowley, San Diego: ‘Fires are a constant worry’
I’ve lived here with my family for five years and we’ve never had to evacuate, but we have our escape plan ready should the need arise.
Fires are a constant worry. I live within the city limits but at the northern edge close to a lot of open lands that is perfect for these kinds of fires to propagate; think of a suburb like Rathfarnham where the city meets the countryside. The landscape is shrubs and brush, with large oak trees interspersed. There is a lot of very dry vegetation that is easily carried on the wind as burning embers. This is how it enters the built environment and when it does it will go from house to house. Houses are mainly tim- ber-framed. About 10 years ago the neighbourhood next to ours lost a lot of houses.
Normally we wouldn’t be too worried about fires in November, as we would have already received enough rain to dampen down everything. But recent years have been exceptionally dry and the fire season is much extended. Conditions today are perfect for fires. The wind is very strong and humidity is low. These Santa Ana winds are a regular weather phenomenon here. It’s a hot dry wind from the east that originates in the desert and blows out to the coast.
People are very worried, and very angry; at the thought that some may have been started deliberately and at the ignorance of [ US president Donald] Trump tweeting about forest management being to blame. This has nothing to do with logging. The problem is the climate and the increased frequency and duration of dry spells.
Orla Donlyn, San Mateo County: ‘We are feeling grateful to be safe’
We are in no danger here but the air quality is a big problem. It’s been at an “unhealthy” level for days and we have been advised to stay indoors. You can easily see and smell the polluted air all around us. Many parents are keeping their kids at home and malls are busy with people trying to find indoor activities with air conditioning.
The air quality is impacting my family with migraines, itchy eyes and coughing. But the community here is not complaining, they are feeling grateful to be safe and are looking for ways to help those who lost their homes. Some people are phoning hotels and anonymously paying for a night’s stay for anyone that needs it, others are offering their homes.
I just became an American citizen but honestly, these fires on top of the gun violence, earthquake threats and Trump in general make me long for the cold winter days back home.
John O’Sullivan, Oakland, San Francisco: ‘We’re at the mercy of nature’
I live about 150 miles [ 240km] from the Camp Fire. We are definitely affected by the smoke, which descended on the city last Thursday and is still pretty thick. Our local school is keeping the kids indoors all day and we’ve all taken the time to better understand what our evacuation plan would be in the event that we had a major fire nearby.
People in this part of the world are generally confident about using technology to fix problems but, despite all the brain power and technology here, we’re at the mercy of nature. Random things like the direction of the wind on a given day means we are shrouded in smoke.
The San Francisco area has enormous economic inequality – everywhere you look there are billionaires and homeless people – but the smoke has a great equalising effect. It’s a timely reminder that we are all vulnerable living creatures dependent on a safe environment to survive.
Robbie Hayes, Napa: ‘The impact on our hospice patients was enormous’
I work for Collabria Care, a hospice service with ancillary services here in the Napa Val- ley. Last year, we were surrounded by wildfires very suddenly, causing a great deal of worry and trauma. This year, the fires are 150 miles away but the air quality is terrible and there is ash covering my car these mornings; a grim reminder.
It’s hard to describe the speed with which these fires move. One minute you’re sniffing something burning, as if it might be something you left in the toaster. The next thing you know, a neighbour is yelling to get out fast. Those who hesitate have too often suffered dire consequences.
The impact on our hospice patients last year was enormous, as it has been for the local hospice close to the Camp Fire this year. Often, families or caregivers have to drag them from their beds to get to a safer location. For those with dementia or Alzheimer’s it can be particularly distressful.
With communications down, it was difficult but essential to locate our patients’ new whereabouts, as they may not have any medication, oxygen, or other necessary medical supplies. Sometimes they have been moved out of area to avoid the choking air – especially if they have asthma – and are staying with family in another state. It took us 72 hours to locate all of our patients last year– an unnerving amount of time when you are caring for people at the end of their days.
Some patients we located last year had incurred additional medical problems – a fall leading to a hip fracture; a broken arm while being loaded into a vehicle.
Then there was the oxygen problem. Our oxygen supplier refused to deliver as they perceived it to be too dangerous, even though the authorities had okayed transit into the valley. That proved to be an extremely difficult problem to solve, but between staff and volunteers ferrying oxygen tanks, we were able to avoid running out.
Brendan Connellan, San Francisco: ‘Appreciate that rain in Ireland’
The Golden Gate bridge often disappears in the fog that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the charms of the city. What’s going on now though, that’s different. Once again, I can’t see the bridge but it’s a grey, thickish, soupy mix that makes you think of zombie films and cover your mouth. Walk outside for too long and your chest begins to hurt. More and more people are walking about with masks over their mouths.
What worries me most of all is that this doesn’t feel like a once-off, rare event. October and November have started to lodge in my mind as the danger months. In theory, we should be getting some rain now and that would help but there’s no sign of any coming soon. Appreciate that rain in Ireland. We need some of it.
People are very worried, and very angry at the thought that some may have been started deliberately and at the ignorance of Trump
James Claffey, his wife Maureen and their daughter Maisie, with a sign they made to thank the firemen who battled wildfires near their home in Carpinteria, California: “One of Maisie’s classmates lost her half-brother in the shootings.”