The Sacramento Airport looks like the sight of an episode of “The Walking Dead.” Not because it’s littered with walking corpses, but because the air is a sickly yellow-brown like someone has filtered reality through a sepia lens. Hardly anyone is visible from the tarmac; it’s impossible to even see where the asphalt ends because everything is so hazy. The sun is condensed to a orange-red ball hung in the smoke. Everything smells burnt.
The Camp Fire that ravaged Paradise, CA is a little over an hour and a half away from the state capital, but just from looking at the sky, one might guess the flames were right on its doorstep. The Camp Fire is just one of several fires that have caused immense damage to the state within the last couple of weeks. The Hill and Woolsey Fires both occurred in Southern California.
While firefighters raced against time to put out the flames and save entire communities from being desimated, state government officials bickered about who is to blame for it all in the first place. Even those still standing have been left scarred. Fire may be a force of nature, but it has a very deep impact on the humans it leaves behind.
Paradise looks like the blueprint of a town without any of the structures; roads are still in place, but houses are just squares of rubble. Many of the Butte County residents fled to a Chico Walmart parking lot, where what began as a temporary shelter became a semi-permanent tent city. There was no running water or toilets, and the threat of rain finally forced people to pack up and seek other options.
But not everyone chose to leave Paradise. The Sacramento Bee reported on a collection of self-proclaimed “mountain boys,” so titled because they have elected to stay in the scorched mountainous landscape that was Paradise. They saved their houses, defied evacuation orders and are continuing to live in the ruins of their city with the supplies they have on hand. While these people may choose to stick it out, in the wake of the fires, Californians and people from all over the country have stepped up to raise funds and donate supplies to people who lost it all.
One such person who has played a role in fundraising is Mike Palmer. Palmer is a bassist for the band Mumbo Gumbo, and has been for over 30 years. On Nov.17, Gumbo and two other groups, Mike Blanchard and the Californios, played a three hour fundraiser at the Davis, California Senior Center. The entrance fee was a donation of gift cards, cash or check. They raised over $60,000.
“It felt quite good to be able to be part of a [fundraiser…] that was so successful and was able to raise so much money in one afternoon,” Palmer said in an interview
Palmer participated in another fire benefit years before and has a few more cued up in the coming weeks. He’s hopeful they will be just as successful as this most recent one. He noted that many of the band members have connections to people in Paradise. The drummer of Gumbo’s brother lost his home, and his daughter lost her home as well.
“The only thing they didn’t lose was [the movie theater they owned], but now there’s nobody to use [it],” Palmer said in interview.
While the Camp Fire may be now ranked as the deadliest fire in California history, the flames that ate up brush in Southern California at around the same time were also significant.
Thousand Oaks resident Barbara Larsen had her second close call with fire this November. The first was in May of 2013, which she noted was, at the time, considered out of fire season. She was out of the house when she noticed the sky going from blue to gray to orange. Once she got home and talked to the neighbors, she decided she should gather some supplies, just in case. Easier said than done.
“I walked in the house and my mind went totally blank. I couldn’t think of a single thing I should take,” Larsen said. Instead, she “wandered aimlessly through the house” and eventually went to gather up computers. That time, she and her family didn’t actually need to evacuate, the adrenaline triggers were still there. She remembers the sound of helicopters flying overhead, carrying water from the reservoir. Now when she hears the whirring of the blades it sends a jolt through her.
“My emotional reaction was very different the second time than the first,” Larsen said. “I took almost nothing;” — just her computer, some pictures from her wedding and of her children as babies and a change of clothes. She remarks that, next time, she will remember to bring something to distract her. She and her husband spent several nights in motels before returning home to an unscathed house.
“If you don’t lose your home the worst part of the experience is not knowing what the heck is going on,” she said. Evacuation notices were given by landline (for those who have one) or through a text message service (that one must sign up for). On the Ventura County website, a map and text description gave contradictory accounts of evacuation zones.
But despite all this mess, Larsen remarks that she loves living in Thousand Oaks, and has simply accepted that “there’s no way I can assume I won’t be at risk again.” She discussed how large swathes of California, particularly in the Valley, are surrounded by the dry brush that fuels fires, and how it’s simply unrealistic to tell people to not build near it when that’s all there is.
As “fire season” in California seems to be less a season and more a constant state, residents like Larsen will constantly be kept on edge. Others, like those displaced from Paradise, will need to figure out how to literally and metaphorically rise from the ashes, and the state as a whole may need to learn how to live with smoky air and blood red sunsets.