Today’s feature asks us to put the brakes on for just a minute.
With the arrival of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., we hit the downhill portion of the holiday season: a month of rushing around that will see us all careening out the other side smack dab into the new year. We often take holidays off to encourage our readers to catch up (with friends and families, and on features from our archives), but this year, instead we would like to bring the focus on people who could use some help — those who found themselves in the path of the Camp Fire, which recently swept through the foothills of northern California.
Horizon, who I’m guessing needs no introduction around here, works with a Search & Rescue unit in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the fire, and was called in to the town of Paradise to help comb through the rubble. We’ve asked him to discuss his experiences, as well as ways to help those affected by the fire. Read on for his photos and commentary.
Give us some background to bring readers up to speed on the destruction of the Camp Fire.
The first thing to know is: Since 2006, California has been in a drought for every year but one. The state is a tinderbox full of dried and dying vegetation. On top of that, our Mediterranean climate means that once spring warms up you don’t see a single cloud for six months. As such, the state has seen a series of increasingly destructive wildfires throughout recent fire seasons — 4 of the 5 largest fires in California history have started in the last five years. (Third place happened in 2003.)
The Camp Fire, which started near Paradise, CA (about 50 miles from my house as the crow flies), barely makes the Top 20 list by size. But it started on an unusually windy day near a town of 26,000 people. It spread so fast that firefighters were neither able to keep it from the town, nor able to oversee an orderly evacuation. So it almost immediately became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, as well as (I am told) the largest coordinated search response in California history.
The death toll is currently at 84 and still rising (with hundreds of people still missing). Over 18,000 buildings burned, including almost 10,000 homes. (Basically the entire town of Paradise, and several outlying communities.) In terms of the human toll, if you took the five next worst California wildfires and added them all together, the Camp Fire STILL beats them. We’ve never seen fire destruction at this scale.
How did you get involved with the relief efforts? What did you do?
I’ve been volunteering with our county’s Search & Rescue team for about a year, and I started helping with the Camp Fire when our agency got a mutual aid callout request from Butte County (where Paradise is located). My agency deployed for a total of nine days, of which I was able to escape the day job and join in for six. The work of disaster recovery is very much still going on, but they’ve pulled us back for the holiday weekend, and might or might not re-deploy us later. (It’s very difficult to request volunteer time for extended deployments like this; all of the fire, emergency and law enforcement responders still on site at least are getting paid for their time.)
As Search & Rescue personnel, our primary job was to search for … let’s just say, confirmation of the fate of missing people. We were typically deployed to burned-out neighborhoods, checking burned vehicles and then going door-to-door through the foundations of destroyed buildings. It was far too late for any human rescue efforts, but the work helped bring closure to their families, and was a major factor (along with infrastructure repair and hazard clearing) in helping lift the evacuation orders which kept residents from returning to the few homes still standing.
In the chaos, many residents also had to leave pets behind. When we could, we tried to provide food and water that could help the few still-living pets survive until their owners returned. We fed a number of starving chickens and dogs, and saw wandering goats and llamas and even a few horses. (There were specific livestock rescue teams coming in to re-home those — we helped one find an address they were looking for south of town.) There was one heartbreaking moment four days in, when we found an undamaged, locked home with no pet door and a cat inside — both of its bowls were empty, but as civilian volunteers we couldn’t legally do anything but look through the window and hope.
What was it like being in the fire zone?
First of all, we weren’t anywhere near where the fire was actively burning. Volunteer safety is always SAR’s first priority. You NEVER want to create another victim.
That’s not to say we didn’t see fire. I saw some open flames inside a hollowed-out standing tree as we were driving back from our assignment one day. We’d already turned our radios in so I had to find cell reception and call the fire in. Fire teams were actually stretched so thin that they said to ignore it; the area had already been burned so thoroughly that even if the tree fell and started a secondary blaze, it didn’t really have anywhere to spread.
What really floored me was the intensity of the destruction. For example:
Plastic, even heavy-duty plastic like trash cans, simply vaporized. I remember seeing a pile of scorched tin cans in someone’s yard surrounded by a weird blue tint to the ground, and it took me a minute to realize that that was where their recycling bin used to be. There was absolutely no trace of the bin except for that blue cast to the dirt, and the sturdiest of its contents.
What used to be car tires could be recognized by the bare wheel, surrounded by what looked like coils of frayed wire — the steel of the steel-belted radials.
What was even crazier was what happened to metal. We saw dozens of burned-out car husks with inch-wide stripes of shiny material on the ground nearby, running downhill from the car. The iron of the frame, which melts at a much higher temperature, had stayed in place, while the aluminum had melted and dripped into pools, then started flowing away and re-solidified midstream.
(You can see that if you click on the panorama above to look at the full-sized photo, and zoom in on the very lower right corner. That was actually an even more bizarre one, because after the metal solidified, it curled inward on itself so the uphill side of the stream was hanging suspended in midair.)
The difference between a two-story and a one-story house, for the most part, was just whether you were sifting through two inches of ash or six inches. There was only one house I knew without a doubt was a multi-story building, and that’s because in the center of the debris was a deformed iron spiral staircase.
We were told to pay special attention to beds, recliners, and bathtubs and showers, since that was where we were most likely to encounter remains. We located beds and recliners by finding the springs which used to be inside the mattress. For bathrooms, sometimes all we had to go on was that we had a lot of tile fragments. Ceramic toilets and bathtubs would simply shatter (either under the heat of the fire or the pressure of a falling roof). Metal tubs and pipes would survive, but plastic PVC piping leading to showerheads and sinks and bathtubs would be gone without a trace.
Bizarrely, it was often easiest to tell where living rooms and bedrooms were because bookshelves were very identifiable. Books would only burn around the edges; the paper was so dense that the centers of pages would survive (or at least stay clumped together in dense white piles that fell apart once you started picking through). I found some garages where all that survived was the metal roof, the metal parts of the cars inside, and some tiny legible page fragments of automobile manuals.
We’d also go through neighborhoods where nine houses out of ten would be a pile of debris less than a foot high, and the tenth house would be utterly untouched. And there’s at least one news story about an ambulance crew which huddled inside a garage as fire encircled them completely, and managed to survive. Even now it’s hard to wrap my head around how capricious the fire was.
Is there anything readers can do to help?
Victims? Very much yes.
Me? No. As disaster responders we were treated very well. Cal Fire has entire crews dedicated to feeding the rest of the responders; every day we got enormous cooked breakfasts and dinners and packed bag lunches twice the size of what we could eat, and when we got back to the base camp and went through decontamination, there were hot showers and laundry service and a tent city where we could sleep in cots. Then we’d go out there the next morning and be reminded all over again of why were were there.
This is, ultimately, 100% about the people affected. I haven’t set up a specific charity/GoFundMe/etc to collect funds to redistribute to them because, to be honest, the needs are so overwhelming I haven’t had the time to research where sending it would do the most good. But here’s a fairly comprehensive list of organizations working toward different kinds of relief that could all use some cash. I personally sent some money toward North Valley Community Foundation, which is funnelling it to groups providing shelter for victims — an absolutely crucial need but a short-term one. (The American Red Cross is directly providing shelter, and they also work with other disasters nationwide.) Northern California United Way is giving cash and gift cards directly to victims, which will help with short- to medium-term recovery in ways that mere housing won’t. The California Community Foundation focuses on longer-term relief. You can also check GoFundMe et.al. for individual victims’ pages, but I’m fortunate enough not to have any IRL friends directly affected — which also means I can’t vouch for any individual fundraising campaign. I hope if any bronies have fire-related needs, they’ll speak up (or signal-boost it) in comments so readers know.
What does SAR work normally entail? Is it different from what you’re doing in this particular case?
Sometimes we work with the county sheriff’s office to look for evidence in criminal cases or death investigations, but the majority of our work is looking for missing people, and the majority of those cases have happy endings. Typically, we show up when hikers/hunters get lost, children wander off while parents’ backs are turned, or elderly people with dementia step out their door and keep going.
This was very different but equally necessary.
How did you become interested in Search and Rescue? What sort of training do you need?
I’ve been an avid outdoorsman since an Outward Bound hike in 1995, and in 2006 set out to do a “thru-hike” of the western U.S.’ Pacific Crest Trail, walking nearly 1000 miles in three months before my knee gave out on me near Yosemite. A close friend turned me on to the idea of volunteering with SAR, and it seemed like a great way to use my wilderness skills to give back to the community.
My outdoor experience has helped me qualify for advanced Type 1 certification (the ability to go out in hazardous terrain and extended searches), but anyone with basic physical fitness and the willingness to put in the time can be useful, regardless of your existing skills. In order to qualify us as ready for field work, they had a six-week training course to teach us search tactics, navigation, safety and communications, and paid for us to get certified in CPR and Wilderness First Aid (note: what the agency pays for may differ county by county). We also have six training deployments per year to keep our skills sharp.
Do you ever discuss Pony with your fellow volunteers?
When I asked the sergeant for clearance to put my photos on social media, I got to explain that it was for a My Little Pony fanfiction site, so there’s that!
I’m pretty open with the fact that I’m an MLP author. The fact of the matter is that my fanfiction has gotten orders of magnitude more attention than my original fiction — and more views than even the published fiction of my older brother and the published non-fiction of my father — so it’s pretty easy to explain that MLP fandom is a fantastic source of feedback and connections (not to mention a fantastic community in its own right).
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ll refer readers again to my answer above of how people can help the victims. At the end of the day, for all the effort I was putting in, I had a home to return to after our deployment finished. Tens of thousands of people don’t have that luxury, and they’re going to need a lot of help, both in having a place to stay right now (on a holiday, in the rain) and in trying to rebuild their life from scratch.
Repeated for simplicity:
- A fairly comprehensive list of organizations working toward different kinds of relief
- Short-term shelter/housing relief: North Valley Community Foundation, American Red Cross
- Medium-term aid/cash directly to victims: Northern California United Way
- Long-term resettlement aid: California Community Foundation
I know that there are a lot of disasters, both large and small, all around the world — this is far from the only problem to address. And I totally get it if you need to focus your resources elsewhere. But please, whether it’s this or elsewhere, do what you can to keep making the world a better place. The best part of the pony community has always been its empathy and generosity.
Have a good holiday, and thanks for letting me speak up.