As an aircraft unloaded its crimson flame retardant on the oak trees behind her house, LeeAnne Mullins, a 63-old-resident of Horsethief Canyon in Riverside county, stood in her backyard, filling up her hummingbird feeder and preparing to evacuate her home of 13 years in response to yet another one of the California wildfires.
Following Holy Fire evacuations, Mullins and her husband faced the possibility of never seeing their home again.
“Our house, the side and the back, back up to the Cleveland National Forest and now it looks like we live on the moon,” Mullins said, looking off into the distance at the ashy grounds that surrounded her home.
Spanning 22,986 acres of scorched land, the Holy Fire encompassed Orange and Riverside counties and has been determined by authorities to be the result of arson. Due to the intensity of the fire, which started August, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the two counties. No fatalities have been reported and the fire is 100 percent contained as of print time.
After three days of evacuation orders, Mullins returned to see that the fire had been contained just feet away from the edge of her house, and after seeing everything intact she described feeling overcome with emotion.
“It was a real mixed emotion, hard to describe. It was elation, it was joy, it was sorrow, it was sadness all wrapped up into this. Happy sad tears, everything. It was just everything all at once,” she said, crediting the Cal Fire Indio firefighters who camped overnight in their front yard to protect their home.
The Holy Fire is only one of many wildfires that have recently spread across California, and the state’s fire season has barely begun to take full swing. Throughout August, 18 wildfires proliferated within the state. This includes the Mendocino Complex fire which burned 422,000 acres of land and has been recorded as the largest wildfire in California history.
Firefighters on the front lines
Following one of the worst years for wildfire death and destruction, the frequency and intensity of wildfires has not let up. A total of one million acres have already burned so far this year, surpassing last years numbers by more than half in the same period of time, according to Cal Fire.
To suppress these fires, an unprecedented number of firefighters have been deployed in the state. This, combined with an annual state fire budget of $442.8 million, which has been cut in half since the fiscal year began in July, has led some firefighters to feel overrun.
“There are so many fires burning and resources are so slim we actually have units that we pulled from the Mendocino Complex, a fire up in northern California when the Holy Fire broke out, so we could basically cover our own dirt,” said Captain Tony Bommarito, public information officer with the Orange County Fire Authority.
Rising temperatures as well as increasingly dry brush also created a deadly force for firefighters in California.
In some local Orange County canyons the fuel moisture is the lowest it’s been in six years, Bommarito said. Fuel moisture refers to a measurement of water in vegetation. A lower water content means fires can easily ignite and spread rapidly.
“We have some areas like the Holy Fire that haven’t burned in about 40 years. So you have 40 years of brush with record level fuel moistures. A very good recipe for a fire,” Bommarito said.
California fires are known to be a natural part of the state’s ecology, yet climate experts stress that humans play an important role in their increasing frequency and severity. Out of 20 of the largest fires recorded in California history, six of them have occured in the last five years, according to Cal Fire.
Matthew Kirby, a Cal State Fullerton professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, said human settlement near forested regions, limited fire prevention funding and forest management all contribute to conditions ripe for wildfire activity.
“On top of that, temperatures are rising literally as a result of global warming, so we have higher evaporation which means drier fuel, warmer temperatures which helps the spread of the fire,” Kirby said.
As smoke permeated across parts of California during the Holy Fire, hazy and polluted skies forced some to stay indoors. Asseel Alnuaimi, a fourth year Cal State Fullerton student who lives in Corona, said her asthma restricted her from being outside while the fire burned near her home.
“The sky was black and orange most days. We didn’t see the sun for like four days straight, That’s how bad it was,” Alnuaimi said.
On August 15, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino counties on account of the Holy Fire.
At CSUF, Dr. Richard Boucher, chief staff physician with the Student Wellness Center, said the center has not seen any increase in patients experiencing respiratory problems. But with the semester now starting, that could change, he said. He recommends limiting outside activity if poor air quality conditions persist or worsen throughout the semester, especially for those with asthma.
Wreckage left behind
Despite all the hazards posed by California wildfires, nothing fully captures the devastation of fires like a single home burned to the ground. More than four million homes in the United States are identified at high or extreme risk of wildfire, with more than two million in California alone, according to a 2017 study done by Viserick, a data analytics provider.
One CSUF graduate student, Megan Mimiaga, wasn’t as fortunate as Mullins. Last December, her family’s house of 12 years burned down after the Thomas fire forced them to evacuate. For both Mimiaga and Mullins, life after a fire seems uncertain but they move forward, taking it in strides.
“I don’t even know if I’ll live long enough to see the oak trees recover,” Mullins said. “But we still have enough things here for the birds, so they’re going to be fine.”