Reflecting on the California wildfire crisis


Sam Beebe

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. First Responders. What depicts the California Wild-fire crisis is the scene of a burning home, and firefighters on the job to extinguish the flame. However, inside the home was more than burning furniture. There were the memories of an innocent family, now in the midst of catastrophe.

By Shreya Mishra and Shree Delwadia

He feels a peculiar smell tingle his senses, and he remains confused for a few moments. However, he remembers the conversations he had a few hours back, and he is instantly nervous. He quickly jumps upon his feet as his thoughts run wildly through his mind. He plays a few options in his head, and it becomes clear that his ultimate goal is to get himself and his family out of danger.

What follows is the tragic story of Ernst Foss, a 63-year-old father of 3, and former rock-n-roll musician that lived in the Paradise, CA area. His story narrates love, passion, but an ultimate demise. Foss retired his love for music to raise his 3 lovely children. However, he taught music in his house and was a highly respected and loved music teacher to many. His life took a turn for the worse about a decade ago with his diagnosis of Lymphedema, which left him bed-ridden. His body was found by authorities on the morning of November 8th, near his minivan, and the body of his service dog.

Used with permission from Roman Digby. First instincts. The smell of fires prompted this man, Ernst Foss, to safely get away from the fire. About a month ago, he and his service dog was found dead near his car.

The loss of life due to wildfires has almost been desensitized recently, as a result of the immense attention that the recent California fire crisis. However, the value of each life, and those who are affected by the life, are indescribably important. A tragic event such as the aforementioned can be and is incredibly devastating to the victims and their families, which truly shines a light on the real situation on hand: the torn families and memories burned down by the fire.

While these events are decided by mother nature herself, their arrival does not confirm the death of all. In fact, these fires can be avoided. Not completely, but in one of the most important ways possible. What will you do, for yourself and your family, when placed in a fire crisis emergency?

What is a Wildfire, and what makes them so wild?

Each year, nearly 45 million homes intermingle with wildland fires, and more than 72,000 communities in the United States are at risk. To be able to expertly prevent these fires from rapidly spreading and possibly proving fatal for the community, its important to understand the technicality of wildfires, and know how common household items prove culprit of their move. Literally speaking, wildfires can be defined as uncontrolled fire that wipes out large masses of area, and are typically started by a strike of lightning, a person accidentally causing a small fire, which eventually expands into a larger one, or sometimes even arson that got out of hand.

While almost every type of fire can be considered dangerous, a wildfire is another step up in comparison to others. Its size can is incredibly large and it is very difficult to fight off, almost impossible, regardless of how many firefighters are at the scene working on it.

From 1990 to 2000, WUI, or wildland-urban interface, where homes and wildland intermingle, putting these areas at risk, have increased by 18%, covering 6 million more homes than they once did. Some research has reported that the intensity of these fires has increased with time as well, indicating that the future of WUI, wildfire damage, and human settlement pertaining to these situations tells a tragic downfall, and the claiming of many innocent lives and homes.

The California Wildfire Crisis 

Photo used from Flickr via Creative Commons. The photo above displays a scene at which firefighters are working to fend off a minuscule house flame that had become a rampant neighborhood fire. The situation can be very critical, and it is very important to realize the risks of a rampant fire.  (To navigate the image hold down both of the mouse keys)

The recent California fire crisis has taken the nation aback, sparking discussion, emotions, and even controversy. The fire is actually a spread of 17 simultaneous fires, including one of the largest in the state’s history, making this fire exponentially large and dangerous compared to previous fires.

The pair of fires that allegedly began the wild-land fire spread were first sighted in the beginning of July, and are believed to have been sparked by someone using a hammer. This, however, does not stop conspiracy theorists from debating the true cause of the catastrophic fire. Some extremists consider that, “The government were testing out some war weapons that included lasers, and that is how the fires were ignited.”

Others see the fire as one of the worst, and most terrifying, events to occur in their life. Almost as if it is a nightmare stuck on loop.

This can be said for Bill Blevin, a third-degree burn victim still recovering in the hospital. He and his family had become surrounded in flames when he was visiting a friend’s house. How he describes his life-changing story brings tears to his and his family’s eyes each time they recall it:

“I was watching all of the homes around us just burn to the ground,” Blevins said. “Then all of a sudden it set in that, ‘Oh my God, I’m burnt bad. The skin is melting off my hands.’”

— Bill Blevin

He used a hose to fend off the fires quickly approaching the house and cars, burning the neighbors’ houses to the ground.

“I called my wife and I told her, ‘Look babe, we’re stranded. We’re stuck in the middle of this fire. We have no way out and I don’t know if I’m ever going to see you again. I love you… and I don’t know if this is going to be my last day or not.'”

What marvels him is his sheer existence after the fire. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t think about how thankful he is for survival.

“I think that we’re very lucky to be alive today because there are a lot of people that didn’t make it out,” Blevins said. “They perished in their homes or they perished in their cars trying to get out of there.” 

Perhaps the most devastating fact about this crisis situation is the sheer number of stories similar to the victim above. When considering the lives that were taken, and the lives who remain unknown under the rubble, the situation becomes very emotionally damaging and sensitive. This can possibly shine a light on  how important it is to consider and reflect on catastrophic events such as devastating fires, and avoid immediate desensitization to such topics.

The Heroic Conquer

While fires can be incredibly devastating to those affected, the situation is not all unpleasant.

More than 13,000 firefighters and 2,300 National Guard members have worked tirelessly to extinguish the flames of the California wild-land fires, and bring families and home back together. Their efforts and sacrifice for the innocent lives they work for each day are truly one of the greatest examples of bravery, courage, and selflessness.

Used with permission from Steve Redick via Flickr Creative Commons. The unbearable flame. Firefghters are working together to distinguish large flames. Many people who have not been part of these wildland fires are worried about the notices or warnings about these fires.

As fires grew, many who were not in danger of fire, and living in other states, began to question the fire departments and their system used to warn citizens of fire risks. Assemblyman James Gallagher, who represents Paradise, claims that this fire highlighted serious flaws within the system used to warn citizens through alerts, and wants fire departments, as a nation, to work towards this issue.

“In the end,” he states, “we had people who said they had no notice.”

This point can be argued, however, by the immense firefighter contribution to California fires, and many other major fires in history.

I have been doing this a long time, and every time you see it, it gets harder and harder. ‘Indescribable’ is the word I have been using. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see what transpired here. Their family, their pets, everything, your entire life in one structure and a five-minute decision — that all weighs on you when you’re out there.”

— Capt. Osh Ahmed

Capt. Osh Ahmad is part of the Rescue California Task Force, and can say he’s seen a lot more than he’s wanted to. He says that working on these fires can take a serious emotional toll and a person, and with some crews of firefighters working 24-hour shifts, the amount of physical stress and emotional weight can really change a person. His crew has searched over 2,200 buildings, with no bodies found. The weight that sits on firefighters’ shoulders only gets heavier with time.

With all the work that firefighters do, it only seems morally incorrect for fingers to point at the Fire Department when the topic of miscommunication is brought to the table. That, however, does not make the issues of the alert system irrelevant, and they definitely need more attention from the Federal Government and the state of California as a whole.

To further our knowledge on the California Fires and wild-fire spreading, we spoke to Sgt. Lance Leuliette with the Forsyth Country Department of Fire Safety. He discussed what causes wild-land fires, addressed the miscommunication allegations, and how Forsyth County will help citizens in the case of an emergency like the California Fires.

Interview with Sgt. Lance Leuliette

Why It Matters

Wild-land fires can destroy families and homes, but there is a positive light under all the layers of darkness. Situations like these bring us back to society and humanity and force us to give up ourselves for others. Firefighters tell the story of bravery and courageousness at a level that is almost unbelievable for some. Innocent people who drop their whole life for their families tell the story of sacrifice and love. And we, who read the stories of those who survived, and those who didn’t, represent the morals of humanity and important lessons to learn.

For Forsyth County, this situation serves as an example of what citizens must do in a state of emergency such as the California wild-fires, and the actions that the Forsyth County Fire Department can take to perhaps improve conditions for citizens better than done previously, and improve alert systems, in order to provide a safer environment for the citizens of Forsyth County.

This story was originally published on The Bird Feed on December 12, 2018.