Eric Thayer / The New York Times

The Woolsey Fire destroyed homes in areas like the Point Dume section of Malibu, Calif., shown on Nov. 13.

November 20, 2018

Cornellians Describe ‘Scary’ Evacuation, ‘Hiroshima-Like’ Aftermath of California Fires

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In the early morning of Nov. 9, Tim Sullivan M.A. ’81 got an emergency alert that Malibu, California was under mandatory evacuation and his home could be in the path of the fire. He and his family packed up a few essential belongings, hoping that they would be able return to the house after the fire passed.

The next day, Sullivan got word that his house had burned down.

The Sullivan family is one of thousands of victims of the Woolsey Fire, which has been raging across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties since Nov. 8. Over 1,100 structures, including the Sullivans’ home, have been destroyed by the fire, and there have been three confirmed fatalities. The fire is now 88 percent contained, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.

Sullivan has also been teaching emergency management and homeland security at the University of California, Los Angeles for 36 years, so he felt prepared for this disaster. He turned on sprinklers, took drapes off windows and moved propane away from the deck.

“I had a plan and followed it … The house had a steel roof, cement siding and sprinkler systems. It was as good as I could make it and even that wasn’t enough,” he said.

Sullivan’s daughter Maureen Mauk ’01 was visiting her parents’ home, where they were intending to host a family wedding, when evacuation started, forcing them to leave in a hurry, without time to take precious family heirlooms.

Sullivan is a retired Rear Admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard who had tours all across the world. Mauk said this meant that “every single thing they had had a lot of meaning.”

“They aren’t the type to go to Pottery Barn and buy a decoration,” she said. “I don’t think they own anything that isn’t saturated in incredible family culture and history.”

Mauk could see “orange skies in the distance” as she was evacuating with her two young children. Her parents followed about an hour later.

A helicopter flies above the roiling smoke from the Woolsey Fire near Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 9.

Jenna Schoenefeld/The New York Times

A helicopter flies above the roiling smoke from the Woolsey Fire near Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 9.

“It was scary because we didn’t even know which way to go,” she said. “All of Malibu was evacuating.”

The traffic was also scary, she said. It took over five hours for her to drive about 20 miles, with the “smoke right behind [her].”

Mauk was even thinking that if the fire reached them in the car, she’d run into the ocean with her children, who don’t know how to swim yet, she said.

According to Mauk, the last thing her mother Teresa did before leaving the house was straighten the couch cushions and load the dishwasher because she was “totally expecting to be back.”

As they were evacuating, Sullivan said he could see an orange glow getting closer to the house. He believes he and Teresa left just 20 or 30 minutes before the fire reached their home.

Unfortunately, they lost their entire house, barn and horse arena which Mauk said was supposed to be her parents’ “forever home.”

Despite this, she said she feels “so lucky knowing that they got out and were safe,” especially after hearing about all the fatalities, including the bodies of two people discovered within half a mile of the Sullivans’ home.

“I’m so grateful that my parents got out. I know we’re really, really fortunate despite it all,” she said.

Sullivan said that he and some family members were able to get back up to the house earlier this week and described the setting as “Hiroshima-like.”

The wedding tent is the only structure spared by the fire on the Sullivans’ property.

Though the Woolsey Fire is expected to be contained by Thursday, the Camp Fire in Butte County in Northern California is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. There have been 76 confirmed fatalities, over 9,800 homes destroyed and still over 1,300 people listed as missing, according to CNN.

Smoke from the Camp Fire lingers over Oakland Hills as people walk their dog in Oakland, California on Nov. 15.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Smoke from the Camp Fire lingers over Oakland Hills as people walk their dog in Oakland, California on Nov. 15. The fire in Butte County is reported to be the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history.

Several California cities, like San Francisco and Sacramento, are experiencing air quality indexes in the “unhealthy” range, while others like Chico are suffering from “very unhealthy” air quality, according to AirNow, the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality reporting system.

Josh Passell ’21 returned home this weekend to Palo Alto, California, about 30 minutes outside of San Francisco, for Thanksgiving break and said that he’s now “forced to think about [the fires] — literally every breath.”

“I usually don’t say I’d rather be in Ithaca, but I could use some fresh air,” Passell said.

He also said that he believes that that these disasters will keep happening if “we continue to treat our planet like crap.” He hopes that students will use their voices to create change.

Last year during the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, Dr. Ryan Luginbuhl ’03

Dr. Ryan Luginbuhl '03

Dr. Ryan Luginbuhl ’03 used the resources he had as the president of the Cornell Alumni Association of Northern California to connect those who could help with those who needed help during the wildfires in October 2017.

heard that some Cornell alumni were forced to flee their homes. As the president of the Cornell Alumni Association of Northern California, Luginbuhl was equipped to use the extensive alumni listserv of 10,000 Cornellians to connect those who could help with those who needed help.

“We had this massive outpouring of 240 people offering assistance,” he said. Ten alumni were displaced and matched with those who offered help.

Luginbuhl was so impacted by this event that he started his own company called GovRock, a platform that aims to connect people, especially “clinically vulnerable people who tend to die in disasters,” with those who can help.

“Seeing the way Cornellians came together thousands of miles from Ithaca really inspired me to say, … ‘can a city like San Francisco … come together as a group almost like Cornellians and help each other?’” he said.

Cornellians from all over California know what it is like to live with the risk of wildfires. Quincy Erturk ’21 and Leslie Zhang ’21 remember Advanced Placement testing being delayed and sports games being cancelled due to past fires near their home in Encinitas, California, near San Diego.

Erturk said she grew up “terrified” of wildfires and remembers “ash falling from the sky” near her home in a past California wildfire.

Zhang’s sister also attends the University of California, Berkeley, where classes were cancelled on Friday due to dangerous air quality from the fires.

“It’s crazy that we could have gotten a snow day [on Friday] and my sister got a day off for fires,” Zhang said.

These fires have reinvigorated the discussion of climate change, as under increased global temperatures “the Southwest, including California will become hotter and drier,” Prof. Arthur DeGaetano, earth and atmospheric sciences, told The Sun.

According to DeGaetano, studies have shown that hot, dry conditions were the major contributor to number of acres burned between 1916 and 2003.

He also said that it is “hard to say anything about the long-term effects of the fires,” but that the wildfires will add a small amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which will eventually be mitigated by the regrowth of the forest.