Through the Embers
Bay Area firefighters and students continue to help aid Southern California crisis
November 2, 2007 1:02 PM
As thousands of people survey damage and authorities uncover arson, the potential return of the Santa Ana winds threatens to turn smoldering embers into the raging blazes that have destroyed over 2,000 Southern California homes.
Nearly two weeks after wildfires began sweeping across more than 500,000 acres of Southern California, local residents and distant SF State students are still feeling the lingering effects of the fires.
According to www.calfires.com, an official website dedicated to updated California fire information, 19 fires in seven Southern California counties were 100 percent contained as of Wednesday morning, including the Buckweed Fire in Los Angeles county, which burned 38,356 acres, causing $7.4 million worth of damage. Local officials believe a child playing with matches started the fire.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department identified a young boy on Tuesday as the cause of the blaze, which began on October 21 and destroyed 21 homes, according to sheriff’s officials. The child has been released into the custody of his parents and the case is being transferred to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The child’s age, name, and home community have not been revealed.
“We have identified a juvenile boy as the person who started the fire,” department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “Arson investigators interviewed the young man, and he acknowledged he had been playing with matches and accidentally started a fire.”
The California Office of Emergency Services released 2,767 as the number of structures destroyed by the fires as of October 28. That number includes 2,013 homes, according to office spokeswoman Kim Oliver. Fourteen people have been killed by the wildfires.
San Francisco, in addition to dozens of other cities and states, sent many firefighters south to help control the flames. Among them was SFFD firefighter Laverne Maliga, who protected structures in Los Angeles and San Diego between October 21 and 27.
Maliga and her team, which included 22 San Francisco firefighters and 10 from elsewhere in the Bay Area in addition to local firefighters, managed to save every house to which they were assigned, and the residents were grateful.
“Just our presence alone made a big difference to all of the people,” she said.
Other homes were not so lucky, as Maliga saw while fighting San Diego’s Witch Fire.
“A lot of houses were burned,” she said. “Chimneys were just standing alone, everything was burned. It was really bad, it was sad.”
Maliga said her scariest experience was while she was on a fire line, standing within 10 feet of the blaze behind a trench designed to keep the fire away from the fighters. But “the fire jumped the line and we had to bail out,” Maliga said.
Maliga was “released from the incident” on Sunday after being told that the fires were dying down and being contained. Maliga said she is “happy to be home, but if it happened again I’d go down there again.”
San Francisco was also home to two evacuees over the weekend, roommates Annika Gaar and Brittany Lynch, both 21, of Carlsbad. The Cal State San Marcos students received an advisory evacuation call and decided to drive to San Francisco to stay with their friends, SF State students Sara Draffin and Tina DiSano.
“It was honestly so relieving,” Gaar said of their trip. “[At home,] it was gross. We were cooped up inside, we did nothing but watch the news for three days. We couldn’t go outside or open the windows and we had no air conditioning. There was no circulation except for the smoke.”
The fires were especially difficult for Lynch, who said that about 30 of her friends from Rancho Bernardo high school lost their homes.
“It’s hard to deal with,” she said. “So many of my friends’ houses are gone, it’s like part of my childhood.”
Lynch enjoyed the vacation from Southern California, where she said “there was no sky, just smoke,” but became sad every time she got word that another friend’s house had been destroyed.
“It was nice to be away, to be safe. I was worried, obviously. And more and more every time I talked to somebody. It was mostly sad,” she said.
One SF State student who is trying to make an impact is Stacy Yip, 20, a Resident Assistant in the Towers. Yip and fellow RA Keir Johnson started the So-Cal Disaster Relief Committee in hopes of raising money and providing an outlet for students affected by the fires. Yip was motivated to start the group when the tragedy hit home by knocking on her dorm room door.
“One of my residents was telling me how she might have to drop out of school because if her house burns down her parents need support, and she just couldn’t go to school that day and she also felt very alone,” Yip said.
The committee, which formed on October 25 and also has a group page on Facebook, will have regular meetings on Mondays at 8:00 pm in the Mary Park Lounge and Wednesdays at 8:00 pm in the Mary Ward Cantina. They will discuss the fires, give updates, make cards for firefighters and paramedics, and offer students specific volunteer opportunities to become involved in over Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
The Red Cross is accepting only monetary donations, and those donations can be made by calling 1-800-HELP NOW, by securely donating online at www.redcross.org, by contacting your local Red Cross chapter, or by mailing a donation to: American Red Cross, PO Box 4002018, Des Moines, IA 50340-2018.
Any students who feel they need counseling to deal with the impact of the wildfires are encouraged to go to Counseling and Psychological Services in room 208 of the Student Services building.
[X]press Special Report:
As both a San Diego native and a photojournalist, I had a special interest in returning home last week to witness the situation that the TV media was labeling as the worst fires in American history.
With fellow photojournalists Brian Frank and Kristina Barker, I arrived in northern San Diego on Wednesday morning as a red sun rose to reveal a hazy brown landscape. It didn’t take long to see the blaze; by then, it was sprouting up on Camp Pendleton, causing the closure of I-5 and impeding our southbound route.
The course of the next five days took us from the 10,000 evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium to the head of the Poomacha Fire on Palomar Mountain, and finally to the devastated neighborhoods of Rancho Bernardo where residents were given 20 minutes to evacuate their homes after the Witch Fire jumped a 10-lane section of I-15.
The vast devastation that was present in so many areas was to be expected, but the absence of hopelessness came as something of a surprise. There was also the pleasant demeanor of the national guardsmen, the ceaseless yet somewhat jovial dedication of the firefighters containing the blazes, the compliance of insurance companies—possibly a repercussion of bad Hurricane Katrina press—and the mammoth outpour of community support. All these contributed to an aura that was grim, but by no means dire. --Steven Simonetti
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