California Wildfires: From Destruction Rises Community Resilience and Perseverance

I am from Sonoma, California and about a year ago, my hometown was ravaged by the first nationally recognized Northern California Wildfire. If you were in Berkeley last year, you probably remember the first time you walked out of your house on the morning of October 9, 2017, and felt that now too familiar feeling of smoke fill your lungs.

I will never forget that morning. I woke up and looked at my phone. I had 30 missed calls and 50 text messages from friends and family. When looking at the text message previews on my phone home screen I kept seeing, “Are you okay?” and “Fire! Get out now!” or “Sonoma is up in flames!”.

I remember dropping my phone to the ground, in complete shock. I called my parents first; they told me that they and the house were still okay at that point. I called my friends that lived in Sonoma. My first conversation with a friend went something like this: “How big is the fire?” I said. My friend responded, “Huge. Thousands of acres huge. People are going to die. It’s bad Mackenzie, it’s bad.”

In disbelief, I thought, how can something like this happen to my little wine country town? Little did I know this would be a reoccurring thought in my mind for the next 23 days. After those 23 days, 250 total fires across Sonoma County were finally contained. However, 44 lives were lost, 245,000 acres burned, 90,000 people evacuated from their homes, and countless lives changed forever.

I was lucky to have not lost any friends or family, nor my house. However, Sonoma County lost something that had been rooted in its community since I could remember, a sense of security. I felt extreme vulnerability for the first time. No one knew how the county, the town, the people, would react. From the mass destruction of homes, businesses, and schools emerged the most overwhelming sense of love I have ever seen or felt. I experienced first-hand how communities respond after heartbreak and loss. The selfishness of “I”  was set aside in favor of the selflessness of “We”. #SonomaStrong began overtaking social media, billboards, and signs on the side of roads. In a time where people could have wallowed in self-pity and fear, a strong community of love emerged and created an unbreakable bond of hope. When destruction takes over and not much is left in a once plentiful place, people rise above, rebuild, and take care of one another. From GoFundMe pages to cooking and sharing meals, or simply putting up signs that radiate love and compassion, sense of community will always rise above any level of destruction.

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The recent fires in Butte County and Southern California have brought about an all too familiar feeling. In Berkeley, we all experienced some of the aftermaths of the fires with the very unhealthy air quality that engulfed the Bay Area for a week. The Camp Fire in Northern California was deemed the deadliest and most destructive in California’s history, with 88 people dead (at time of publication). In a time where hope and love were once again threatened, this time at no surprise to myself, the California community bounced back with an unparalleled spirit of resiliency and strength. Some examples of humanitarian outreach include community members from all over California opening their personal resources to the victims of the fires. A man from San Diego made the treck to Paradise, CA and gave every high school kid $1,000 to help their families. Animals that were left abandoned and lost have been picked up and placed in shelters throughout the state. A man who actually lost his own home in the Sonoma County fires last year went to Paradise and put up a decorated Christmas tree in the remains of neighborhoods in an attempt to spread Holiday joy. These are just a handful of the examples of human beings going beyond themselves in order to help others.

In a time where we as a society focus primarily on horrific events and negligent people, we need to remember to take a step back and acknowledge that there are good and caring people in the world. It can be easy to get caught up with the negative news, fill with self-pity, and close away from the ones you love. But through the recent wildfire destruction, although extremely devastating and heartbreaking, the rise of love, selflessness, and hope throughout the community can and will allow us to keep faith in humanity.

If you want to help victims of the fires in Northern and/or Southern California, you can do this by donating to organizations such as The American Red Cross, Northern California Fire Relief Fund, The Salvation Army, Firefighters Charitable Foundation and Air BNB (who are helping connect victims with people willing to open up their homes for free).

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