BY CHEYENNE ELLIS '21
Over the past week, wildfires have devastated the grounds of Northern California, leaving at least 40 people dead and over 5,700 properties in ruins according to the Associated Press. The largest of the wildfires, referred to as the Atlas fire, has destroyed 50,383 acres of land alone and collectively, the 15 or more fires in the region have ravaged 220,000 acres of land according to the Los Angeles Times.
While firefighters are making strides to contain the blazes, the wildfires are not expected to be fully contained until Saturday, causing these fires to be labeled as the most destructive California has ever seen.
According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the reasons that these wildfires have been so deadly is due to the strong winds in the area, which make the flames move faster.
By Saturday, over 100,000 residents had been placed under a mandatory evacuation but evacuation notification came too late for many, as reported by ABC. Survivors and local officials reporttales of banging on the resident’s doors to alert them and fleeing, just moments before the flames overtook homes. As a result, many have questioned the notification methods used by authorities. While officials did send out phone calls to notify residents of the danger, they opted against a wireless emergency alert due to fears that the widespread notification would cause panic among citizens who were not in danger and potentially create traffic buildup.
The fires, while physically thousands of miles from the Mount Holyoke campus, hit close to home for many students. Shana Seligman ’21, a native Californian, said, “So far, the fires haven’t reached my town, but they’re disturbingly close. I never know if they’re going to close in or if, given the weather, another one is going to start. It’s pretty scary to wake up to a Facebook feed full of news about where the fires have spread and friends and family posting reminders to follow the evacuation notices. I see photos of the smoke everywhere and one of my neighbors even mentioned that it isn’t safe to walk their dog outside anymore.”
Maggie Kamb ’21, was in the Silicon Valley area of California this past week and said that “There have been a lot of reports of poor air quality and overall smokiness. The airport on Wednesday night smelled like a barbeque and people I know from high school had classes cancelled and were worried they might have to evacuate.”
Amongst the rubble, a few reunion stories have emerged. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, one local family was forced to evacuate their home within minutes of notification and, amidst the chaos, the family dog, Izzy, sprinted off in another direction. Days after the fire was extinguished, family members returned to the site of their demolished house, preparing to have their worst fears confirmed, but instead, were greeted by an exhausted but otherwise healthy Izzy.
Wildfires have long been a part of California’s history, but never before have the conditions led to such widespread flames. Earlier in the year, California experienced the wettest winter on record, due to the rising sea levels, with storms arriving in extreme bouts and causing increased vegetation growth throughout the region. Summer weather brought extreme heat and dryness for the state. With the newly parched vegetation, Northern California became a tinderbox.
Cal Fire spokesperson Mike Smith said to the Los Angeles Times that “Experts use a scientific formula to determine the potential of a fire, called the energy release component. On Saturday, that potential was the worst ‘in recorded history.’”
Research has prompted scientists around the globe to be fearful of the potential natural disasters to come if global warming continues at the current pace. David Wallace-Wells wrote in New York Magazine that “Even if, miraculously, the planet immediately ceased emitting carbon into the atmosphere […] at the absolute very least, we have 50 percent more warming to go.”
With an increase in global temperature and rising sea levels, disasters like these wildfires and the hurricanes earlier this month are going to become increasingly more frequent and devastating.