How Do You Cope When Wildfires are the New Normal?

1 min
Reporters Adrian Fernandez Baumann and Kate Maxwell from the Mendocino Voice look out at smoke from part of the Mendocino Complex Fire. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

On the outskirts of Ukiah, at the edge of a residential neighborhood, helicopters flew back and forth Wednesday, dumping water on a fire threatening nearby homes. Worried residents, including Kristen Lozano, stood watching as firefighters set up a perimeter just down the road from Lozano’s front yard.

“These fires have been insane. And knowing this one was less than a quarter of a mile away really got me. My 14-year-old daughter was home alone so I had to come here as soon as possible,” said Lozano.

Even though this fire was quickly contained, Lozano remained on edge. Nearby, the River and Ranch fires continued to burn across thousands of acres in Mendocino County and Lake County.

Just last October, a huge fire burned more than 36,500 acres in Mendocino County. The fire took out cell towers, forcing neighbors in certain areas to knock on doors to notify people of the oncoming blaze.

“You don't recover from a fire in a few months when you lose over 350 homes in a community,” said Heather Gurewitz, executive director of Economic Development and Financing Corp., a nonprofit in Mendocino County.

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Gurewitz said some people from last October's fire are still in temporary housing.

Responding Becomes Anticipating Fire

Big fires are putting new pressures on other local organizations in Mendocino and Lake counties.

At Mendocino College, an evacuation center has been set up for the second time. The superintendent and president of the school, Arturo Reyes, was visiting with people at the center when his own family showed up in the parking lot, having just evacuated their home.

Reyes was composed and calm as he walked toward them, “It’s something that comes from experience and having been through a number of emergency situations,” said Reyes.

Fire Trucks at the Incident Command Post in Ukiah
Fire trucks at the Incident Command Post in Ukiah (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

Patty Bruder, executive director of North Coast Opportunities, said her organization is still trying to adjust to the series of fires.

“We had the Rocky and the Jerusalem fires and then the Valley Fire. We really thought we were kind of out of the woods. And then the Clayton Fire hit and we realize that this is kind of becoming a regular way of life,” said Bruder.

Bruder’s organization provides programs for caregiving, child development, wellness and nutrition. In 2015 they began organizing fire relief donations. Now, they are trying to create a continuous fire relief position as they think about the future of Mendocino and Lake counties.

“We never set out to be a disaster-related organization, but we’ve kind of gotten into this business because of what we’ve faced over these last years,” said Bruder. “We have lots of uninsured people in these two communities, and so many more are underinsured."

Bruder is especially concerned for seniors, who might not have the resources or the energy to rebuild. Recently, her organization held workshops for seniors on resilience.

“What's the next step in housing in general has just been such a huge crisis. I mean we all know that we've been in a housing crisis long before the fires started and rents are higher,” said Bruder.

Bruder said she sees some people trying to rebuild, while others have no choice but to leave because there isn't anywhere for them to live.

 Patty Bruder, Executive Director of North Coast Opportunities.
Patty Bruder, executive director of North Coast Opportunities. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

Firefighter Trevor Pappas said he has talked to people who have had to evacuate more than once. One man he spoke with fled from the Clayton fires in 2016 and had to evacuate his home again this week.

“He's got an RV packed with all his goods and tries not to keep anything too expensive in his house because it’s becoming a cycle," said Pappas. "He even talked about moving to Sacramento, which was kind of tough to hear because here I am as a firefighter and to hear, ‘I can't even live where I want to live because the fires aren't being stopped.’ It's kind of disheartening for sure.”

Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown said when the weather gets hot, and the vegetation dries up, something as simple as a chain hitting the ground can cause sparks and start a fire.

“We need to teach our children throwing a rock against a rock could cause a spark that might start a wildfire,” said Brown.

In addition to fire safety, Brown said the county should look at how it manages its lands.

Reporters Adrian Fernandez Baumann and Kate Maxwell at the Mendocino Voice contributed to this story.

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