Irish in California: ‘Fires are a constant worry’

As the state battles raging wildfires, Irish people living there describe the scene

James Claffey, his wife Maureen and their daughter Maisie, at their home in Carpinteria, California: “One of my daughter Maisie’s classmates lost her half-brother in the shootings.”

James Claffey, his wife Maureen and their daughter Maisie, at their home in Carpinteria, California: “One of my daughter Maisie’s classmates lost her half-brother in the shootings.”

 

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 closeby 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.

My ninth grade student’s mother is the minister for the Conejo Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in fire-ravaged Newbury Park, and had to conduct her service online this past week because they are displaced by the fires to the south. Everywhere I turn there’s someone in crisis, whether it’s related to the wildfires, or the mass 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, yet 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 timber-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 Trump

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. People are donating clothes, food and whatever they can and others are driving donations to where they are needed. 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.

A helicopter drops water on brush burning near Pepperdine University in an attempt to tackle the Woosley Fire in Malibu, California. Photograph: Mike Nelson/EPA
A helicopter drops water on brush burning near Pepperdine University in an attempt to tackle the Woosley Fire in Malibu, California. Photograph: Mike Nelson/EPA

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 Valley. 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 all 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. I’ve watched it curl across the bay all the way to Alcatraz and you’d be hard pushed to remember there was ever anything behind it, be it a prison or a mountain. 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. Two years ago, the fires were perhaps even worse but this one isn’t over yet, and it may not even have peaked. Seeing those poor people down near LA incinerated in their cars as they tried to escape, you think of Die Hard and expect Bruce Willis or The Rock to hop down from the chopper and save us all. But this is real life. Appreciate that rain in Ireland. We need some of it.

A firefighter battles the Peak Fire in Simi Valley, California. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters
A firefighter battles the Peak Fire in Simi Valley, California. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Claire Hallahan: ‘My daughter is a student just 12 miles from Paradise’

My daughter is a senior student at Chico State University in California, just 12 miles from Paradise. My husband and two younger children moved back to Ireland from Palo Alto a few months ago because my parents are ill.

Since moving to California in 2012 there has been a drought. We had to get used to conserving water. Last October there was a terrible fire in Santa Rosa. I worked in an elementary school in Palo Alto and, because of the poor air quality due to the fires, we had to keep the children in at recess and lunch. I couldn’t believe how far the smoke had travelled. There was even ash falling.

Jessica’s grandma used to own a house in Paradise but sold it a few years ago. Apparently that house was burned down last Thursday.

It definitely makes me think twice about where I would live if I return to the California

On Thursday morning Jessica sent me a photo of the sky in Chico saying “Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” I jokingly said it looks like a fire, but didn’t think anything more of it. Ten minutes later Jessica messaged again saying it actually was a fire. It became clear very quickly that this fire was moving fast. I told her to get a bag of essentials packed just in case. By Friday morning, Chico State had cancelled classes for the day. I barely slept Thursday night, worrying that this fire would jump the freeway.

By Friday afternoon California time, Jessica and her roommate decided to leave Chico. I didn’t sleep until she was safely with her father. The university decided to cancel all classes for the next week. It will reopen after Thanksgiving. So many of their students and staff have been directly affected by this fire. I’m heartbroken for the people of California. So many lives lost, so many memories burned down.

I had gotten used to the beautiful California sunshine; in fact I loved it. But since returning to Ireland, I realise how dry it really was. We got a little taste of that this past summer in Ireland. With all that sunshine comes a risk. It definitely makes me think twice about where I would live if I return to the California.

Tim O’ Connor, Novato: ‘The air has been thick from the smoke and fine ash’

I am originally from Kinvara, Co Galway, but moved to California in 2005. I have lived in a town named Novato since 2007 with my wife Amy and two daughters, Caroline and Aibheen. I work as the manager of administration for the department of environment, health and safety for University of California, Berkeley.

We are about 180 miles way from these fires, but unfortunately the smoke from them is impacting us. For the last week, the air has been thick from the smoke and fine ash drifting down from the fire. It is unhealthy for kids, elderly or people with health conditions to be out and even able bodied adults have to avoid prolonged exposure without wearing a mask. Our kids have been kept inside since last Thursday and several school districts nearby have closed school altogether.

Sadly, these fires seem to be becoming an annual occurrence

While these fires have thankfully not directly impacted us other than the smoke, we were impacted by the fires last year which were in our area. The largest, The Tubbs Fire, was 20 minutes north of us and devastated entire neighbourhoods in Santa Rosa. We also had smaller fires break out around the area, one very close to us. I woke up the night the fires started to the smell of smoke and an eerie orange aura lighting up the room. It was something I will never forget.

Sadly, these fires seem to be becoming an annual occurrence. I lived here for about 10 years with almost nothing of this scale (there has always been fires, but they were much smaller and far less devastating), and my wife grew up in the area and doesn’t remember anything like this. But the last few years have seen several large fires and terrible atmospheric conditions. People all know about the threat of earthquakes, but fire is the real natural disaster to be feared. This is the warmest November I can remember since I moved here.

The recent fire epidemic though has helped to make people and communities realise that they need to do more to protect themselves. There have been a number of movements organised to help communities become better prepared in the event of fire. A lot of these are championed by local fire departments and in turn run by volunteers. Our neighbourhood, Bahia, is surrounded by forest and dry grass, so obviously there is a large risk of fire. To help ensure that we are as protected as we can be, we are currently participating in the Firewise programme, working towards being officially Firewise certified within two years.

Simon White, Sacramento: ‘Climate change is the main contributor’

Thankfully I have not had evacuate because of the fires but it has had an effect on daily life here. Sacramento is in a valley, so all of the smoke comes in and sits here when there are wildfires in the northern part of the state. It affects visibility, and the last week has been considered unhealthy to breathe in for extended periods. The wildfires have become somewhat of a norm the last few years as the amount we’ve seen and the damage caused keeps growing.

There’s a mostly unified understanding that this issue is not going to go away, and that climate change is the main contributor. This last decade has seen most years in a drought which has impacted the forests throughout the state. Fires spread more quickly and are more difficult to contain than ever before. While more than half of the forests are federally controlled, there will need to be better funding and policies in place that address water management, taking out dead trees, and ensuring areas near towns are maintained.

Communities have done an amazing job of pulling together – whether it’s with donations of food, clothing or donations to local groups. The damage from the Camp Fire is still not fully known but the impact it will have on that area is going to last a long time.

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