By Oscar Barnes
In 2017, California witnessed the Tubbs Fire, one of the worst fires in recent history that awoke Californians and the world to the dangers of climate change. One cannot fully appreciate climate change’s impact, though, without talking to the affected. It is important to go to a smaller scale to realize that we aren’t very distant from the people who have been affected, and we could soon be similarly affected.
Erin Grillo, a family friend of mine, is a registered dietitian who has worked at a Sutter Health Center in Sonoma County since 1982. She grew up partially in Southern California, but her parents later moved north to Sebastopol. Grillo eventually went to UC Davis, and has lived in Santa Rosa ever since. She currently has two college-aged kids.
At the time of the Tubbs fire, her son was off to college at San Jose State University, while her daughter was at a nearby junior college.
“[At one point during the night]… we [Grillo and her daughter] both got up to go to the bathroom… and then I heard my phone in the other room ‘ting’ like I got a text message, which was really odd,” Grillo said. It turned out it was her sister who lived across the street, informing her that a fire had just jumped Highway 101, and that they should evacuate. It was crazy to her that a fire had jumped the highway, she noted, but they were still some miles away from the highway, so they weren’t overly worried. Grillo and her daughter quickly picked up some of their belongings and headed out to her daughter’s workplace. There, Grillo’s sister got a call.
“Everybody’s house was okay, but the fire was on my house,” Grillo said.
Neighbors tried to put the fire out, but in the end, her house was gutted from the back. She only recovered a few of the personal and family items around her house—many more were destroyed. Her house was the only one affected in the neighborhood.
She returned around 8:30 or 9 a.m. the next morning. “I felt horrible…It’s crazy. It [all] kind of look[ed] like a movie set,” she said. She later called her insurance company to start the claim process in order to get some money to rebuild her house. The claim is still going through today, two years later. She is still rebuilding her house.
Luckily, the community rallied around her, giving her a lot of help and support both physically and emotionally, she said. “It was like a war zone… cars flipped over. And the only things left on the houses were bricks,” she said about a park only two blocks from her home.
“But the weirdest thing is when I went out to Sebastopol on Wednesday, two days later… people were walking their dog like they didn’t have a care in the world. It was the most bizarre thing to me [because] don’t these people realize [that in] Santa Rosa 5,300 homes are burnt…they’re a little removed,” Grillo said. It is surprising how disconnected these people were, and how much more we are disconnected from these fires.
One year later, the Kincade Fire hit. While she and her parents had to be evacuated, and some emotions were brought up again, both of their houses remained untouched.
Near the end of the interview, I asked Grillo if she thought a worse fire could be coming in the near future. “I don’t know, I really don’t know,” she replied. At the end of the day, none of us really knows.
We live only hours away from places that have recently been impacted by these wildfires, yet we only focus on the things that directly affect us, such as the recent power outages. Wildfires are a constant threat to us all, but they are even scarier for communities that are still recovering. It isn’t easy to help everyone affected by these catastrophic events. The least we can do is take some time to remember.