You may have seen the pictures – the last couple of weeks, Southern California has faced some of the worst bush fires in history, after no rain for two months into ‘rain season’. I had been aware of a big fire up north in October, as I know lots of Yaz’s friends were affected by it. I can’t say I ever imagined one disrupting life here, though – it’s such a bubble!
However, last Wednesday exactly that happened. I had stayed up until 6am working on a presentation due that afternoon, had just crawled into bed to be immediately woken 5 minutes later by a siren on my phone. Usually that sound is reserved for an ‘Amber Alert’ – America’s clever way of spreading information about child kidnappings to every single person in the area – and I was going to ignore it because obviously I wasn’t going to be looking out for any suspicious white vans from my dorm room at 6am. But I rolled over anyway, just to check, and saw an alert warning me about a fire that had erupted on Mulholland Drive, by the Getty centre and Bel-Air – just 5 miles away! I considered waking Yaz and Liz to tell them, but decided there was little we could do right now. Plus I was very tired and was dreading the prospect of a day of fire-related excitements after only 5 minutes sleep…
Only to be woken up half an hour later when we all got another alert about the fire, forcing us awake and to start wondering about whether it would reach us, with such strong winds. There were some seriously terrifying videos circulating that morning too, such as this one of someone’s drive on the 405 that morning:
How nice they’ve finally decided to build a highway through Mordor.
I eventually managed to get a little more sleep, and woke to the new at about 10.50am that we had lost all power due to the fire (which was creeping ever closer) and classes from noon onwards were cancelled. That included my presentation class, so I was a little miffed I had spent so long working on it the night before!
As there was no power, the dining halls couldn’t cook us any food. Instead, they had to give us (free) emergency sandwiches from Bruin Café, while smoke masks were handed out to protect our lungs from the ash laden air. Another slightly freaking revelation was that although UCLA was yet to be officially evacuated, the mandatory evacuation zone ended literally meters from Saxon Suites!
At this stage, most people who lived relatively locally and who had a ride went home, as there was no point staying on a smoke covered campus when they could just pop home for a long weekend. I still had a big essay due on Friday, so was reluctant to jolly off for the rest of the week. I considered going with Yaz to her boyfriend’s house in Newport, but as there was no guarantee I could get home for the weekend, I decided to stick it out at UCLA for as long as it was safe to do so. That afternoon, I went to the Theta house where there is air conditioning, so as to escape the smoke (which was making me cough!). I had a lovely long nap in my friend Megan’s bed, then decided to go home, as it seemed by now that the fire was largely under control. Having said that, however, we did then receive a further alert that evening warning us that high winds may lead to the fire spreading quickly towards us overnight. Liz was at Saxon too, so we spent the evening with our neighbour, Madie, searching the Saxon area for the stray kittens who live here to make sure they were safe. We couldn’t find them – they must have sensed the danger! Luckily we were not evacuated that night, and although classes were cancelled the next day, the air quality was significantly better.
There was quite a lot of criticism of the UCLA administration in their handling of the crisis, much of which I agree with. The language used via Bruin Alerts was far too vague to contain the rising levels of panic among the college’s 47,000 students, and they were very very slow to give us information regarding classes being cancelled and fire updates. Cancelling afternoon classes at noon kind of defeated the purpose, as commuting students still had to battle the blaze to get to campus before they were told to go home. It probably didn’t help that media outlets and social media effectively ‘fanned the flames’ of the hype surrounding the fire, to the point where I was convinced we were all going to die! It would have been reassuring if UCLA was clearer in communicating an evacuation plan, the likelihood of us being evacuated and what steps they were taking to make sure we were all safe. Theta was very organised and had a plan in action before UCLA even acknowledged the fire existed!
I never thought that I’d ever actually be in that classic hypothetical scenario of having five minutes to pack a single bag with all of my most important possessions. Although we never had to properly evacuate, the act of going through everything I own and considering its value to me was really eye opening, as it made me realise how little I care about so many of my things! Although I can’t say I enjoyed my first fire experience, it was certainly eye-opening and I’m glad in a way that it was something I was here for, as there was never a real sense of danger, as I knew the university or Theta would get us out if we had to. I feel so sorry for all of those poor souls who lost everything, and who still are in danger of losing everything as the fires continue to rage around Santa Barbara and Ventura.