Students return to fire country

Yorleny Cristobal remembers the exact moment she learned her hometown was engulfed in flames last week.

The criminal justice studies major was back home in Santa Rosa visiting family for the weekend when her mom burst into her room Monday morning with the news.

“It was 3:23 a.m. I tried to go back to sleep because I didn’t take my mom seriously, and then my dad came in,” she said. “I looked it up on Google and it said immediate evacuation warning.”

Cristobal jumped out of bed and, by 4 a.m., her and much of her family were speeding south on Highway 101 to seek refuge in her Daly City townhouse. Her parents, siblings, aunt, uncle and four cousins rode with her.

After arriving home safely, she pumped up an army of air mattresses and called it a night. A day later, her family heard their house was on the opposite side of town from the fires, so they returned Tuesday afternoon.

While some SF State students relaxed this past three-day weekend, Cristobal, along with her friend Sam Holland, rushed north to their hometowns, which is still under siege by wildfires.

Cristobal headed north back to Santa Rosa, which dealt with the Tubbs and Nuns fires. Holland, a microbiology major, returned home to Napa, where the Atlas fire sieged the hillsides but thankfully stayed away from the more suburban parts of town.

The extent of the damage kicked in for Cristobal when she arrived back home to see the damage for herself. Unlike the Atlas fire, the Tubbs and Nuns fires had escaped the mountainous regions surrounding Santa Rosa. By Monday morning the Tubbs fire was neck-deep in suburban timber.

“Everyone has at least one person they know whose house burnt down,” she said. “And there’s not much you can say to console them. You’re kind of in an awkward silence. Like, you’re supporting them, but you don’t know how to make it better.”

But the one thing she did have to give was her time. Cristobal arrived home late Friday, and by Saturday she was volunteering at Elsie Allen High School, the shelter closest to her house in south west Santa Rosa. As a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, Cristobal’s first job was to rally everyone at the shelter for dinner. The rest of the night was spent stocking the food pantry.

“We were an imitation grocery store, stacking up soups, beans, vegetable cans, just so the next morning people could come by and pick out whatever they need, she said.

While Cristobal stocked food in Santa Rosa, Holland was sifting through donated clothing 40 miles away in Napa. He arrived late Thursday night after receiving the email from President Leslie E. Wong, canceling all classes for Friday.

“Once I saw the actual devastation here in Napa and I breathed in the ash … why should I just stay at home when I could go out and help?” he said

Holland spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday bouncing around various aid centers around town, organizing supplies for distribution. He organized orders of clothing for families who lost everything in the fires except the clothes on their backs. In the process, he said he met scores of people who lost it all.

“It was chaotic…everybody was just lying down, and there were kids running around, but nobody was talking, everybody was just sitting there.” Holland said. “It was sad.”

Like Cristobal, Holland wasn’t near San Francisco when he first learned about the fire; he was actually  driving home from Napa where he works every weekend. He was an hour down highway 80 when he saw fog appear in front of the car that resembled smoke along with an orange moon. After seeing the oddities, he called his mom to go outside and check. His mom knew about the fires by then, but not the extent of the fire that would eventually earn the name the Atlas fire.

As of Tuesday, Oct. 17 the Atlas fire has consumed the most acreage of all North Bay wildfires with 51,064 acres burned; it’s 77 percent contained. Just north in Santa Rosa, the two fire complexes ravaging northern Sonoma county is the Tubbs fire, with 36,432 acres consumed and is 82 percent contained. Slightly south of the Tubbs fire is the Nuns fire, which is 68 percent contained and has claimed 52,984 acres.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that, based on their own analysis of satellite images, the Tubbs fire may have leveled 5,100 strictures on its own, making it the most destructive wildfire in California history. The Tubbs fire would unseat the Oakland Hills fire on the top 20 most damaging California destructive wildfires list. The Oakland Hills fire blazed through the East Bay hills above Oakland in 1991, consuming: 1,600 acres, 2,900 structures and 25 human lives in the process.

For Cristobal and Holland, the quest to rebuild their hometowns is far from over. Both students can point to multiple people who lost homes, including friends, family and even teachers at SF State. Cristobal says she knows at least four people who lost it all in the blazes near Santa Rosa, including her best friend and fiance who lost their home. She plans to drive back up to Santa Rosa this Thursday, along with Holland, who will be heading back up to Napa.

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