North Bay Wildfires Impact Daily Lives
By Dharma Bartram
On the evening of October 8th, wildfires began to ravage Santa Rosa and other parts of Sonoma and Napa Counties, resulting in thousands of evacuees and displaced persons, hundreds of injuries and over 40 fatalities. Additionally, hundreds of thousands acres were charred by the blazes, and a thick layer of smoke covered the Bay Area skies. This affected the daily lives of everyone in its crosshairs.
These wildfires impacted Bay Area citizens of all walks of life, including a myriad of students. As distracting and unhealthy smoke fell over Novato, schools north of Marin experienced widespread cancellations and even damage to their campuses, not to mention their families’ homes.
In Santa Rosa, Cardinal Newman High School and neighboring middle school Roseland Collegiate Prep sustained large amounts of damage caused by the fires, while elementary school Hidden Valley Satellite was burned to the ground.
Cardinal Newman, a private Catholic school of about 600 students, lost most of their campus to the fires. They have rallied their community, holding informational sessions with parents and having community bonding days for the students.
Cardinal Newman’s next step is to close for the semester, with each grade level attending school at different locations in the northern part of Sonoma County. CNHS plans to begin the rebuilding process so students can return to school in January.
Cardinal Newman Principal Graham Rutherford detailed how students will be attending school in the meantime and what the future holds.
“The students will have their assignments sent to them and can turn in work online. They will be meeting at 4 different sites from 9 to 2 in class levels to keep in touch, get help, and continue to learn,” said Rutherford. “We are hopeful this will keep all on track to finish the semester and if fortunate, be back on campus in January.”
Cardinal Newman ASB President Kasey Braun described how students have been attending school in the meantime.
“We have one huge room and then have dividers for each class. Our administration worked really hard to create a schedule that worked so that the teachers could move from each satellite campus for each grade and still teach all the students they have. We hope this will only last for the rest of the semester but nothing is for sure. This system is pretty cool because our class periods are when we can do our homework and ask questions; they call it flipped learning,” said Braun.
Braun spoke on how the fires have impacted the college application process as well.
“Honestly, the fires gave me time to focus on my college applications. It gave my classmates and I two weeks to catch up and not have to worry about school work.” Braun said. “Some colleges are even giving extensions for those who can’t meet the early action deadline. The fire also burned a bunch of people’s SAT scores so they have to retake that as well.”
Other Sonoma County schools, including colleges, were temporarily closed because of the extreme amounts of smoke and proximity to the fires.
Sonoma State University suspended classes and business operations for a week following the fires, and opened their student center to evacuees.
Sonoma State freshman Louise Gainer touched on the effects of the fires, especially in regard to students’ emotions.
“It felt surreal seeing the place where the fire was when I came back. I hadn’t realized just how close it was until I saw the black hill behind the school,” said Gainer. “The smoke is kinda hard to breathe in but it’s worse seeing my friends watch their hometowns burn down. A couple people started crying in class yesterday and they were talking about how everything they’ve known for 18 years is just gone.”
One of the many unique aspects of Novato High is the amount of students who commute from outside the district for MSA. Some of these commuter students live in Sonoma County and experienced the effects of the fires much more intensely than those in Novato or further south.
Some live as far north as the evacuation areas and had to vacate their homes while attending school.
Sophomore Anden Peterson had to be evacuated and described how it affected her daily life. Anden had to stay with family in Oakland, making it very difficult to commute to school.
“It took me 2 hours to get to school everyday and I had to miss 1st and 2nd period because of it. Also, it was hard to pay attention because of everything that was going on.” said Peterson.
Bella Williams, a senior and Petaluma resident, described how the fires have affected her daily life and ability to not only get to school, but to remain on task.
“The fires affected daily life in Petaluma by creating huge amounts of traffic. A good amount of the stores had to close down due to lack of employees. The number of homeless
population grew in the streets,” said Williams. ”Also, I had family members that had to stay at my house which caused me to stay home and help out, and when I was at school I was worried about my grandma who was still in Santa Rosa, which made me very distracted and unfocused.”
Williams started a drive for those who lost belongings to the fire, asking students to bring donations to the dance room. She, like other NHS students, volunteered after school at places like the Salvation Army and other local shelters, doing a variety of different things, from sorting donations to assisting evacuees.
“I would encourage others to sign up with the Red Cross and to donate money to any of the many GoFundMe accounts that people have set up,” Williams encouraged. “Also, that they are going to need help cleaning up all the debris that is left over and to pay attention to see if they are going to need volunteers for that.”
The wildfires that have swept Northern California have destroyed the lives of many, but have brought communities closer and highlighted human kindness.