In Case of Fire

How do people in Sacramento and surrounding areas live with the constant fear of wildfire?
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danilla sands talks fire
Danilla Sands

When the Valley Fire hit Lake County six years ago, Danilla Sands was in her mid-30s with three young children. She lived in Redwood Valley, a couple hours’ drive north of Sacramento—where she regularly drove to see relatives and use the airport.

The Valley Fire was a fair distance from Sands’ residence. Nevertheless, when she saw images of the devastation, it impacted her viscerally. With her youngest child, an infant, strapped to her back, she began running volunteer kitchens for people who had been displaced by the flames.

Every year since, as California’s wildfires have gotten worse, and as the duration of wildfire season has lengthened, Sands has become more and more emotionally consumed by the disasters, and increasingly determined to help those in harm’s way. In 2017, during the fires in Mendocino County, she caravanned carloads of donated furniture, food, clothing and other assistance to people who had lost homes or had to evacuate for prolonged periods. She began regularly taking her kids to volunteer at disaster centers, figuring that the days of schooling lost would be more than replaced by the life education they were receiving. She set up a small local newspaper, Mendocino Action News, that focused on providing regular fire and other emergency updates to readers. She developed a strong presence on Facebook and other social media, where she passed along tips about how to prepare for—and survive—fires that could come out of nowhere and grow into monsters in a matter of hours. Mendocino Action News Facebook posts in late August this year included information about the raging Caldor and Dixie fires, among others.

These days, when she sees a red-flag warning issued, Sands immediately rushes into action, working out the best ways to spread the word to as many of her community neighbors as possible. She has, she estimates, changed her routines “one hundred and ten percent” since the fires became an annual reality. “My thinking is all about fires now, disasters, what’s in the news. I have two backpacks full of to-go supplies: food, water, transistor radio, fire extinguishers.”

sacramento in smoke
Smoke in Sacramento during the Camp Fire in 2018.

The preparation calms her down and, in a small way, makes her feel in control. But, even so, when another fire erupts, she feels that sense of incipient, rising panic in her gut. “When I do get anxious, it’s when there’s an active fire and I can’t let people know about it—say, the internet isn’t working properly. The winds pick up too much. A tree above my home . . . the pine cones hit it, large branches all over the yard. If the weather gets like that, even my 6-year-old will go around the house, collect the flashlights, change the batteries. Before, it wouldn’t have fazed us. Last year, we had the August Complex fires, 1.4 million acres. For months, our town had smoke. We were wearing N95 masks for COVID and for the fires. It was a lot.”

Around the greater Sacramento region, residents have changed how they behave in the face of these unprecedented climate change-fueled infernos—and they have changed how they think. Some find they are perennially anxious.

Others, such as 58-year-old Patti Martin, who has lived in Sacramento her entire life, find solace and newfound meaning by organizing relief efforts. In 2015, Martin, who had worked as a warehouse manager for a videotape distributor for almost 20 years before having to quit her job after a pulmonary hypertension diagnosis, began trucking donations in a U-Haul van up to Mountain Ranch in Calaveras County after the Butte Fire. “They were so happy to see me,” she recalls, her voice filled with joy at the memory. “I thought, ‘wow, what a great feeling.’ I made probably 10 trips up there with different donations.”

Since then, she has been a frontline volunteer on all the major Northern California fires—in Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Paradise, Quincy and so forth. After the Camp Fire in Paradise, she calculates, she made 76 trips north—to Chico, to Oroville, to Concow—with vehicles filled with donated goods.

patti martin shares her experience with fire
Patti Martin

More recently, as the Dixie and Caldor fires exploded in size this summer, Martin has gone into volunteer overdrive. “My life has been nonstop. With the Dixie Fire, so many people have been impacted,” she says, including many families who lost everything in the Camp Fire and face the prospect of a second cataclysmic life upheaval due to California’s infernos. Martin has been driving supplies pretty much every day. “Last night, I went to Concow and the night before to Oroville,” she says, sounding exhausted. “I had my friend drive up with me; we came back down, loaded my car back up and headed to Folsom” to donate dog crates and fans for a friend doing animal rescue work in the fire zones. “Two runs in one night, and one last night. Everybody’s scared. And now (the Caldor Fire is) moving toward Lake Tahoe and everybody’s really freaking out. Every year, the situation gets worse.”

For 60-year-old Patty Roberts, a nurse who lives on 46th Street in East Sacramento, the fires also have catalyzed a fierce desire to help fellow Californians in distress. Roberts and her physician husband both are members of the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society Alliance, and as the Dixie and Caldor fires intensified, she used the alliance’s website to help mobilize an army of donors to assist people displaced by the flames. “We received thousands of dollars’ worth of camping equipment. Somebody sent a $2,000 check. I’m getting gas cards, gift cards . . .” Every day, Amazon trucks have stopped at her house to deliver more donated supplies. Her garage has filled with boxes.

She canvassed her neighbors on 46th Street with flyers, and more donations poured in. A physician who was a member of the alliance urged members of his soccer team to shop for additional supplies. The team showed up at Roberts’ house with sleeping bags, coolers and tents.

“It absolutely has changed my perspective,” says Roberts, who has been coordinating with Patti Martin to move supplies out of her garage and into evacuation centers and fire zones where they are needed. “My bad day is nothing compared to the bad day of these people. And it’s really fulfilling to see how generous the Sacramento community can be.”

Some local residents have found that, confronted by fires, their ideas have shifted about where they want to live or to travel. Meanwhile, others have made the decision to hunker down and to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

katie hepler
Katie Hepler

In 2015, Katie Hepler’s parents’ home in the small town of Mountain Ranch burned down in the Butte Fire, which cut a swath of destruction through Calaveras and Amador counties. At the time, Hepler, who was in her late 20s and had built up an insurance industry career in government relations, was living in Sacramento after attending Sacramento State.

As the fire raged, Hepler’s parents were evacuated; as a result, they didn’t know in the initial days whether or not their house had survived. Hepler volunteered to drive out from Sacramento to see if she could scout out the damage. She and her then-boyfriend (now husband) packed a car full of donations and headed first to the evacuation centers. They dropped off supplies, then navigated their way past a seemingly endless line of roadblocks and into the heart of the fire zone.

“Trees down everywhere, power lines down, and spot fires along the road,” she says.

The house itself had vanished in the flames. “The physical land is there,” says Hepler, sobbing at the memory. “But [the house] is just gone.”

There were piles of rubble, twisted, melted metal remnants of a microwave, a dishwasher, a fridge, a metal staircase. Ceramic shards from plates. Frames of the cars that her parents had left behind, the aluminum melted, windows and seats burned away.

“It was pretty horrifying, to be honest,” she recalls. “It’s difficult to tell your friend or loved one or family what has just happened to them. It’s tough to process.”

Soon afterward, Hepler started a Facebook group, the California Fire Support Group, which now has roughly 8,500 members, to help her come to terms with the catastrophe, and to coordinate donations from community members seeking to assist families who lost their homes and possessions to the fires. It became a life calling, a way to channel her fear and her hurt, and also a place to meet new friends. “I have so many friends I’ve met volunteering around the fires,” she says. “Even people I invited to my wedding.”

For much of each day during fire season, Hepler is on the phone in her Carmichael home, gleaning on-the-ground information about fires, working out where best to channel assistance. She recently wrote, and uploaded onto social media, a “12 step guide to help plan in advance for an evacuation,” intended to provide easy-to-follow instructions for those living in the path of potential oncoming fires, helping them plan exactly what to take with them, and how, during a rush from their homes.

The guide, which took her hours to write, and which hyperlinks to a number of government websites and other information-packed resources, hasn’t so far reached a large audience, but the mere act of writing it made her feel empowered, in control. “It’s fairly all-inclusive,” Hepler says proudly. “It tackles planning to get out of your residence, your neighborhood. What to do with animals. What documents to take. It’s important to know in advance how you’re going to handle that situation. At least, have some sort of plan.”

In fact, when she isn’t channeling these energies into helping others, Hepler gets nervous. The fires have impacted her thoughts about where she’s willing to live. She no longer feels comfortable near an urban greenbelt, fearing the grasslands and trees could prove easy fire fodder. She is scared of the wooded foothills east of town. She worries that residents of those areas will soon be unable to purchase fire insurance. She’s signed up for emergency alerts to be texted to her cellphone. Each year on the Fourth of July, as the fireworks go off, she and her husband become more and more nervous, hoping that none of the projectiles land on their roof and set off a blaze. They keep to-go bags permanently packed and ready to dump into their cars, and carriers on hand in case they have to quickly evacuate their pets. “You never know when it’s going to start up, and you don’t want to be stuck,” she explains. “It’s not something I ever would have thought of before.”

janeen duvall smith
Janeen Duvall Smith

For Ukiah resident Jeffrey Marble, 62, the fires have profoundly altered his approach to life.

In 2015, Marble was working for Caltrans and was sent to survey the damage after the Valley Fire in Lake County. He was, he says, “kind of blown away by the amount of destruction. It went on for miles and miles.” But, beyond his awe at the power of nature, he wasn’t personally affected.

Three years later, however, the Ranch and River fires, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, hit closer to home. The air quality deteriorated so much that he became extremely ill, and shortly afterward he was diagnosed with heart failure.

Fearing what would happen to his already-damaged heart and lungs if he were ever stuck in another smoke-fog for days on end, Marble bought a secondhand 1990 Gulf Stream motor home and a couple of generators. Using skills from his work as a mechanic years earlier, he pulled out the carpeting, repaired the damaged plumbing and water heater, and made the beige motor home roadworthy again.

Now, whenever the air quality starts to deteriorate, he and his two parakeets, Kiah and Bluebird, get in the Gulf Stream and head to the coast to escape the pollution. “I look outside, it’s apocalyptic, gray smoke everywhere, I don’t stick around,” he says. “Because with my heart condition, I don’t want to hang around and breathe a lot of toxic smoke.”

Janeen Duvall Smith also understands the urge to flee. During fire season, the 57-year-old Clear Lake resident, who grew up in Sacramento and still visits the city regularly (and whose now-deceased husband worked as a firefighter for decades and was part of wildfire strike teams deployed to Southern California for at least five fire seasons) keeps extra food and clothing in her trailer.

She makes sure to have two weeks of her medications in pillboxes on her dresser, along with her vitamins—all easy to grab in case she has to make a dash for safety. She stocks up on canned goods, oatmeal, condiments. “We could,” she says determinedly of herself, her partner and her adult son who lives with them, “potentially hook up our trailer and be off our property within about 15 minutes if we were told to evacuate.”

The way she thinks about her world has changed significantly since annual fire outbreaks began pummeling the region in 2015. “I’m not very high-strung or anxious, but I do keep the fire safety issues in the back of my mind.”

For residents of the greater Sacramento region, it would be an understatement to say that fires have become a horrifying new normal. Last year, Sacramento was impacted by (among others) the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, burning through parts of the wine country, Capay Valley and Vacaville and closing Interstate 80. The year before that, the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties burned into the city of Redding. This summer, of course, the Caldor Fire closed Highway 50 and displaced tens of thousands of El Dorado and Amador County residents and roared into our beloved Tahoe Basin. Our air quality index has soared on numerous days, with outer reaches of the region reaching hazardous levels of 500 plus, worse this year even than in November 2018, when the Camp Fire in Paradise sent choking ash into the valley, closing schools and canceling events in a way that at the time felt unprecedented. We think about our own level of risk, whether fire might race into city streets, as the Tubbs Fire did in Santa Rosa in 2017. The best answer: Always be prepared.

What will Patty Roberts do next? She’s thinking of buying large quantities of food and heading north to evacuation centers to help feed residents displaced by the Dixie and Beckwourth Complex fires.

And what will Patti Martin do? “I’ll probably keep going as long as the fires keep going. I tried to stop at the end of last year, and then the Bear Fire happened, and I couldn’t take a break. I can’t just sit around. There’s no way.”

Driving north with carfuls of supplies has become a summer ritual for her. “It’s become pretty much a full-time job for me right now. It’s hard, and I put a lot of miles on my car.” But, she says after a long pause, “The stories that I’ve heard, especially from the Camp Fire—oh, my God, incredible stories of survival and escape, and determination and strength.”