Michele Steinberg

Reflections on a wildfire disaster: five years later

Blog Post created by Michele Steinberg Employee on Oct 22, 2012

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Five years ago this week, I attended a wonderful conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. The first "Human Dimensions of Wildfire" conference sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire was attended by about 100 of the nation's wildfire researchers, students, and practitioners who focused on the social aspects and dynamics of wildfire in our world. Little did I know that I was about to learn a series of real-life lessons about people and fire.

I flew to Denver on October 22 and drove up to Fort Collins. As we were setting up exhibits and getting ready for the first reception, news about fires in San Diego County, California, began to ripple through the meeting rooms. Researchers, professors and students from southern California were on cell phones and laptops trying to find out what was happening at home. Anxiety mounted as several of them realized their homes were threatened or their neighborhood was under an evacuation order.

My first reflection on what came to be called the Witch Creek Fire (aka the Witch fire or the Witch Creek and Guejito fire complex) was to observe and to share the feeling of utter helplessness when away from home, the inability to be able to reach loved ones, the worry that one's best preparedness efforts would go for naught. How many of us think about the possibility that we won't be able to do ANYTHING when emergency strikes at home - because we can't get back home?  As my colleagues struggled with this event, some deciding to cut their visit short, others to stay and wait to see what happened at home, I wondered what I would do if faced with a similar situation.

As the event unfolded, I remember feeling a sense of unreality and disbelief that the same general area that suffered so badly in the Cedar Fire complex of 2003 was being revisited by this nightmare only four years later. I reflected on what I'd been taught about the phenomenon of wildfire, its history and its ecology: Where fire has been, fire will come again. But, so soon in the same place?

I returned home to Boston on October 26. On November 1, I was back on a plane, but this time to San Diego. I was about to observe what a post-fire scenario looked like, up close and personal. I accompanied a video team, assisted by CAL FIRE and local fire agencies, to document damage and to capture footage that would help us demonstrate Firewise principles and messages. Of many lessons, I remember learning:

  • Home construction, design and landscaping really do have an enormous impact on home survivability in a wildfire
  • One's income level and lifestyle do not necessarily predict likelihood of home loss - but they most certainly affect the ability to recover from that loss
  • Stringent enforcement of regulations for building and landscaping make a positive difference
  • Those whose homes survive also suffer - whether it's survivor guilt, health effects from smoke, post-traumatic stress, or loss of community
  • Those who fight the fire also suffer, both physically and emotionally

As part of this post-fire visit, I took nearly 300 photographs. I'll share a few of those and more about my reflections on this event with you over this week.

Photo of destroyed homes in Ramona, California, by Michele Steinberg, NFPA

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