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Podcasts The Big Burn: How To Survive the Age of Wildfires
The Big Burn: The New Normal
Graphic of a Southern California mountain range at dusk; a mountain road is seen with emergency vehicles and evacuating cars, far in the distance are lights from a city and a view of an observatory perched on a mountain summit, the fading sunlight setting behind the mountains
(Ruolin Tu for LAist)
Episode 1
39:42
The Big Burn: The New Normal
We examine one particularly pivotal wildfire - the Tubbs fire of 2017.Preppi is giving a free emergency kit with any purchase over $100. Go to preppi.com/thebigburn for more informationVisit betterhelp.com/bigburn today to get 10% off your first month.

Jacob Margolis  00:05

[music in] Imagine you work in downtown LA, the heart of Los Angeles, in a tall office building where you take care of the facilities. And every day after you're done dealing with leaky pipes and broken doorknobs, you take the elevator down to the parking garage [sound of car starting], hop in your car and start the long commute back to your house in the valley. [car honks and driving ambi] Obviously, you're in traffic, but at least you're not one of those suckers sitting on the 405 North.

Nick Roman  00:32

[radio clip] [car radio tuning sounds] This is 89.3 KPCC. I'm Nick Roman. It's September. The Santa Ana winds are back, gusts to 40 miles an hour, temperatures above 100 degrees, humidity down in the teens. The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning and you know what that means. If a wildfire gets going, you might have to get going and evacuate. And there's more... a magnitude 4.5 earthquake... [fade out] [traffic sounds]

Jacob Margolis  00:57

You're too busy thinking about your deadlines at work to notice the Red Flag Warning on the radio, or that the palm trees are being bent horizontal [music] by the wind outside, or that Griffith Park is looking extra dry. By the time you get home, your partner has dinner ready, which is really nice, even though it's pasta with red sauce for the kids again. After they go down, you cuddle, watch some TV, and on the news, they talk about how a fire's broken out near Yosemite, which is kind of a bummer because you really love Yosemite. You hope that everything's gonna be okay. [winds blowing] Meanwhile, gusts of wind are pushing through every crack in the windows that you said you'd fix. There's always a lot to do around the house and you feel really guilty, but you just try to put it out of your mind for the night, settle in, relax, and you eventually pass out. [music out] [wind fades out]

Jacob Margolis  00:57

[helicopter sounds] [sirens] [knock on door] Disoriented, you jump up, tripping on the shoes [someone mumbles] you always keep right next to the bed, and you stumble to the door. You put your eye to the peep hole and see your [knocking at door] [sound of door being opened] neighbor Dave.

Jacob Margolis  02:13

What's going on Dave? [sirens] It's midnight.

Jacob Margolis  02:15

[outdoor sounds grow louder] Before Dave can say anything your eyes start to water. Smoke rushes in. There's a fire he says. He walks back over to his house to stand on the front lawn to talk to the other neighbors outside. Ash is falling through the beams of the streetlights and a few miles away, the hills are glowing. You're far enough away, right? I mean, state fire maps say you'll be okay. And the fire would definitely have to make it through a bunch of neighborhoods before it got to you. [sound of door being shut] [outdoor sounds muffled] You pull out the air purifiers, turn them on for the kids, and lay back down listening to the wind. [wind blowing] [muffled sirens]

Jacob Margolis  03:02

You look at your phone for some sort of emergency message, but besides a tweet from the fire department saying there's a brush fire, you don't see anything worth worrying about. [ambient outdoor sounds grow softer, followed suddenly by police on megaphone: Police Department. It's a mandatory evacuation order. Fire coming. You need to leave now.] [a man speaks: The plan right now is if I can go home...] [police on megaphone: Police Department. There's a fire coming your way. You need to get your family and leave now.]

Jacob Margolis  03:35

This time it's not just the hills glowing. A house a few blocks away is on fire and the wind is blowing embers straight towards you, but for some reason, there still aren't any firefighters or helicopters nearby. You're confused. [music in] Now your partner's up, rushing around, throwing stuff into a bag- kids' clothes, snacks, picture frames, an ice pack for the insulin you have to keep cold. The kids are still half asleep when you rush out front and turn on the sprinklers, grab a hose and start spraying everything you can. The fence between the two houses down the street has clearly caught on fire. Now the second one is going up. Then Cheryl's home, then Brian's, and Saraya's. Embers are cresting and crashing with the waves of the wind. Trees that went unwatered during the drought become 20-foot-tall torches.

Sheriff’s Body Cam Audio  04:26

[audio clip] It's like life and death right now, okay? You gotta get those people out of here.

Jacob Margolis  04:31

But you're frozen in your driveway, water dribbling out of your hose, staring at the flames. This shouldn't be happening. But this... is the new normal. [music transition]

President Biden  04:45

[audio clip] We know that decades of forest management decisions have created hazardous conditions across the western forests. But we can't ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change.

Audio Clips  05:04

[phone dialing] [audio clips] [1] How big is this fire? Uh, it's... starting to get out of control. [2] ...fire... moves fast- about the time you see where it is, it's already... [3] ...children, and I couldn't get down the road because there were too many flames on both sides... [4] ...smoke plume from the Mendocino complex is so big it can be seen from space... [5] ...and it's gonna take the whole entire block if somebody doesn't get here immediately... [6] ...We, every year seems to get worse... [7] ...people literally had to get out of their homes with just the clothes on their back... [8] ...3 of the 4 largest fires in California history... [9] ...Okay, I'm sorry, we can't even take the calls anymore. So this is a structure? [phone ringing] [10] ...I know, there's a fire! I'm on the line with 911... [11] ...911, what is the loc... [scream] [dial tone]

Jacob Margolis  05:43

[music] This is The Big Burn. I'm Jacob Margolis. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  06:07

Are you ready to talk about- sad [laughing] disaster stuff again?

Rachel  06:16

Um, sure?

Jacob Margolis  06:19

My wife Rachel and I, we talk about sad disaster stuff a lot. In part, because for the past five years or so, with all the fires, we feel like we have to be ready for what's to come.

Jacob Margolis  06:30

I'm curious what the moment for you was when kind of the um, focus on fire and the worrying about fire kinda, kinda started to happen, because I have a specific moment, but I'm curious what yours is.

Rachel  06:42

Yeah, it was 2019, and we were like a mile outside of the evacuation area, like our house. And you were reporting on the fire, and you called me and said we need to get out of town. It's going to be not, it's not safe to breathe the air. It's not safe for Lev. It's not safe for you, and it's not safe for the baby.

Jacob Margolis  07:04

Rachel had a high-risk pregnancy from about 20 weeks. She had to go to the doctor to have our daughter Zoey monitored by a specialist because if Zoe's heart rate didn't look right, she'd have to be delivered by emergency C section, like right away. I was afraid the smoke might make things worse.

Rachel  07:20

There was so much smoke and ash in the air. It was really difficult to see.

Jacob Margolis  07:25

And our house had- been filling with smoke too. Did we throw the garbage bags up that night?

Rachel  07:31

Yeah, I think so, unless they had already been up because of a previous fire, because at a certain point, we were throwing them up so often that we just left them up.

Jacob Margolis  07:40

And these are garbage bags. Since our house is so leaky and old, there, we're literally cutting up con- black contractor bags and using like duct tape to tape 'em over windows and vents and just kind of everywhere the smoke was coming in. And I remember walking around the house like sniffing for like, [Rachel: Yeah.] new, new smoke.

Rachel  07:57

Yeah, I remember you doing that. That was nuts. I mean, it was warranted but it felt, you just felt crazy with all these black trash bags [laughs] everywhere up in [JM: Yeah.] your house with duct tape. It wasn't like a good feeling.

Jacob Margolis  08:12

And so when I called you that day and I told you to leave- leave the house and leave the neighborhood, what was your first reaction?

Rachel  08:21

I just felt super freaked out, and I felt unsafe, and I didn't know where to go. And I didn't really want to go alone because I was in this high-risk pregnancy situation with a toddler, [pause] and I just felt super panicked. Like how do you outrun smoke?

Jacob Margolis  08:40

[music in] Anyone who's been living with these fires can tell you that it has been unrelenting. Over the past decade, California has been hit by 9 out of its 10 largest fires on record. Towns are being wiped off the map. Some years, we're living with smoke for what seems like months at a time. And climate change has brought fire to places around the world we never really saw fire before, like the tundra. It all feels really bleak. And I don't know about you, but I want to know, is this just it? Life with fire. Is everything eventually just going to turn to ash? In this podcast, I want to get to the bottom of why this is happening. What decisions brought us here, and most importantly, what we can do about it. This journey, it's going to take me from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where trees that have long lived with fire are now being destroyed by it.

Audio Clip  09:38

What does it mean to lose a 2000-year-old tree and to have fires that are capable of burning them up?

Jacob Margolis  09:46

To those that say we need more fire to save our forests.

Audio Clip  09:49

We're all going to be burning together, lighting something on fire... FIRE!... [sound of trees burning]

Jacob Margolis  09:57

To people who want to hold those in power accountable.

Audio Clip  10:01

PG&E has an accountability problem and I've been waiting for the PG&E CEO who says, What the hell are we doing?

Jacob Margolis  10:09

How maybe we all just need to build fireproof concrete bunkers.

Audio Clip  10:14

They were saying this idiot's building a bunker, he's out of his mind, he's expecting the end of the world. I said guys, if you live in an area like this, this is a reality.

Jacob Margolis  10:23

And to a whole new understanding of the history that shaped our narratives about fire in the first place.

Audio Clip  10:29

Your audience needs to realize there's a part of colonial debt that they need to challenge themselves to understand the history.

Audio Clip  10:37

See us here, your children, your grandchildren, and your great grandchildren as the seven generations of the future to restore the land and use the greatest tool left to us. Fire.

Jacob Margolis  10:50

We're going to try and figure out if there's a better way forward, if there is any hope to be found, because I don't know about you... but I really need it. [music fades out]

Jacob Margolis  11:06

If you have any doubt about just how dangerous, deadly and destructive fires have gotten, I need you to hear about the Tubbs Fire, which hit back in 2017. It was a fire that shattered our idea of just how bad fires could be, and it showed us just how totally unprepared we were for what was to come.

Jacob Margolis  11:25

[Napa Valley ambi] [Santa Ana winds] In early October 2017, Armando Berriz and his wife Carmen Caldente were on vacation in Santa Rosa with their family, spending the week exploring towns in the Napa Valley area. [birds chirping] It's a pretty idyllic vacation spot. It's arguably the best place in California to grow wine grapes. It's a Mediterranean climate, which means hot days, cool nights, and no rain to ruin your trip. But it also means by the fall, the landscapes are dangerously dry. They're staying in a vacation home up in the hills with their daughter, son in law, and granddaughter.

Armando Berriz  12:08

We been in the pool in the afternoon. And so we were relaxing at dinner. So we were set to continue the, uh, the vacation.

Jacob Margolis  12:18

Armando retired in the 2000s after working as a civil engineer and raising a family with Carmen. She had great benefits from her time working at United Airlines, so they'd spent the retired years exploring the world. England, France, Majorca, Italy... Santa Rosa.

Armando Berriz  12:34

Nice hotels, nice restaurants. She always enjoyed that. We just had a, a ball going all, to all those places.

Jacob Margolis  12:43

The two had a long history together, meeting in Cuba when they were kids.

Armando Berriz  12:47

She was 12. I was 13 [laughs] and I proposed. A couple of months after that she wanted to be my girlfriend. She said yes, but I, I knew that she was a person that I wanted to be with- forever.

Jacob Margolis  13:00

Armando left Cuba and made his way to the US, and he reconnected with Carmen. They got married in their early 20s and started a family together, had three daughters.

Armando Berriz  13:09

It was uh, almost destined before all time. I, I had never imagined that life would be so delightful uh, as the times that I spent with her.

Jacob Margolis  13:23

[music in] That night, October 8, Armando had a bad feeling. He'd felt strong winds build all day. Having lived in Southern California for over 50 years, he knew that could be bad news. [wind ambi] California's fall winds tend to flow east from the Great Basin, blowing straight towards the coast. And as they drop down over our huge mountains, they compress, they heat up, and pick up speed before slamming right into us. Here in the southern part of the state, we call them Santa Ana Winds. Up north, they call them Diablo Winds. But they were so concerning that day that National Weather Service had issued a Red Flag Warning, essentially saying, Hey, it's so dry and these winds are so strong that catastrophic, unstoppable fires are possible.

Armando Berriz  14:13

We figured we might as well be cautious because fires are fires, and they don't respect anything.

Jacob Margolis  14:21

So they did their due diligence and called the local fire department to check in.

Armando Berriz  14:26

Everywhere we, we called, we got the same reply: Don't worry. The fire is 20 miles from where you are, and um, you have nothing to worry about. And um, they all said, Nah, sit back. You're okay.

Jacob Margolis  14:44

So they relaxed, went to sleep with no idea about what was to come. [pause] We'll be right back. [music out] [break]

Jacob Margolis  15:01

Armando and Carmen had gone to bed after being reassured by the fire department that they had nothing to worry about. Little did they know in the interim between calling the fire department and going to sleep, an electrical line had dropped sparks on to some dry brush one mountain range over [wind ambi] starting a fire in Calistoga sometime between 9 and 9:41 PM. Driven by 80 mile per hour winds, you can hear in the 911 calls, that it was moving faster than just about anyone could process.

Audio Clips  15:31

[1]...the wind is really blowing. So I don't know if there's a fire north, south, east, or west or whatever. It's like a hurricane out there... [2]...I'm just wondering if I should worry about evacuation... Okay. Where are you at exactly, sir? [3]...We tried to get down off the hill and there's a tree blocking the road and so we can't get out. [4]...Holy Mother of God, can I help you? We need help bad. We have like nine fires out of control...

Jacob Margolis  15:57

[wind ambi] Around midnight, Carmen woke up Armando. The house was filled with smoke.

Armando Berriz  16:03

My wife told me, We gotta go. The fire is coming. And I said, Well, how can that be? Because we were sure we were not in any danger.

Jacob Margolis  16:15

They rushed out the door to their cars, some 30 yards away. Armando and Carmen in one car, following their family in another. But soon, the glowing red taillights in front of them disappear, as the windows were painted white by thick smoke.

Armando Berriz  16:29

[ambi winds, fire, helicopters] [music in] I thought I was on a road, but I wasn't, and uh, I drove into a, a flower uh, bed. And of course, all my tires were in, in soft soil and had no traction. So I couldn't back up. I couldn't follow forward. By then we were beginning to see fire all around us. And I, I told my wife that the only chance we had was to uh, run into the pool. You know, in the pool, we're going to be uh, at least safe until we, we get rescued.

Jacob Margolis  17:16

They open their car doors and were completely blinded but managed to find a fence and run their hands along it, back in the direction of where they hoped the property was, where they hoped they could use the cool water of the pool to escape. [pause] [sound of embers] When they got there, they shoved open the pool gate and were met by a torrent of embers.

Armando Berriz  17:38

Eh, it might've been in the path of a flame thrower, uh because that's what it felt like.

Jacob Margolis  17:47

Bits and pieces of the landscape and homes raining down on them, piercing Armando's skin right below his right ear.

Armando Berriz  17:54

And I had to pull it out. The only thing I could think of is just [pool splash] to jump into the pool. I, I didn't expect the water to get so cold.

Jacob Margolis  18:10

The water was in the 40s even though the air around them was scalding hot and acrid, burning their lungs every time they inhaled.

Armando Berriz  18:18

You have to stick your head out of the water to breathe and the moment you did that you, you had flames all around you. The house! The house itself was on fire. The seats, the uh, pool equipment, everything caught fire. The vehicle we were driving actually exploded. Anything burned. Everything burned. Imagine yourself inside an oven. If you're not protected like by a pool, like we were, we wouldn't have lived another 10 minutes, five minutes. We would have been charred inside of that. [water sloshing around]

Jacob Margolis  18:59

What is it, are you having conversations through that time?

Armando Berriz  19:02

You have very little conversation. I, I, I- we didn't talk a lot. We would say, Let's get over this side of the pool. Let's go over that side. What do you think of doing this? What do you think of doing that? That was the length of the, anything that we talked about, because neither of us knew what we were doing, to expect, or how long this would last. And it was a, a fight all the way through. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  19:36

As the night progressed the fire headed somewhere no one really thought it would. The developed part of Santa Rosa. 1000s of people, homes, businesses, areas far from anywhere you'd think would burn. They were all in danger. [fire ambi and sirens] By the middle of the night, emergency responders were rushing in from everywhere. [walkie talkie in background] Off duty firefighter, Jason Jenkins, was sleeping when his wife woke him up. His portable radio called for all hands on deck, so he and his wife got into their car and drove towards the flames- into Santa Rosa.

Jason Jenkins  20:11

And so as I got closer and closer, you know, to town, it was, it was chaos. Gridlock, cars driving over sidewalks to get out. There was one point in time where I'm driving code three in the fast lane, and my wife screams, Watch out! and a car was coming at us in the fast lane.

Jacob Margolis  20:28

[sirens] Almost running straight into them, trying to get away from fires in the city.

Jason Jenkins  20:32

And now there's another car, another car. Now there's multiple cars going the wrong direction on the highway. People are fleeing for their lives, making reckless and poor decisions in, in, in a panic.

Jacob Margolis  20:44

Jason made it to Santa Rosa to the base of firefighting operations, which was temporarily in the Kmart parking lot. Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossener was one of the main guys in charge, and Tony was standing at his hatchback trying to make sense of the chaos. Papers spread across his trunk, jotting down notes and making calls. [portable radio in background] Dispatch was overwhelmed. No one could figure out where the fire front was- the place where firefighters might make a stand to keep the fire from moving forward.

Tony Gossener  21:15

I talked to the battalion chief and he goes, I got fire on all sides of me. I don't know where it's at at this point. So I'd have to send runners out to go find the edge of the fire, so we know where to make the next- cause we want to stop it, right? You got to stop the fire. And it's hard to do in 70, 80 mile an hour winds.

Jacob Margolis  21:35

Entire neighborhoods were catching on fire. Fast. When a lot of people were asleep too, leaving residents with little heads up that they needed to get out of there. Crews went out to neighborhoods to help with evacuations, and you could see in body cam footage from the Santa Rosa Police Department, how emergency services were in full on triage mode. The recordings are really hard to listen to.

911 Tape  21:58

[1] ...We have a report of a family trapped in a residence. [2] ...It's like life and death right now, okay? [3]...[crying] Ay, ay, aya, my kids, ay, ay, ay... [sirens] Get in my car ma'am, get in my car... [4] [crying] ...the whole house is surrounded. I just... okay... oh my God... it's so terrifying... nothing went off... none of the smoke detectors went off... Tell me it's just this neighborhood. No, it's not. It's the whole hills. [sobs]

Jacob Margolis  22:32

Emergency crews, including Tony's, were completely maxed out.

Tony Gossener  22:36

We have no engines. There are no engines available in Santa Rosa. And so I called dispatch- I said, Send any? And they repeated, We have no engines. There are no engines available in Sonoma County. What you have is what you have.

Jacob Margolis  22:49

Nearby counties couldn't send back up because their crews were tied up on the other 20 major fires that were burning across the area. The Santa Rosa Fire Department rushed to pull all of its half working fire trucks out of repair shops and even cut the locks on a county parking lot commandeering six random vehicles. It was a purely save-who-we-can situation.

Tony Gossener  23:11

And there's no way we were going to stop the fire. You could add 100 fire engines and it would have blown right through everything.

Jacob Margolis  23:16

In the middle of the chaos, it became clear that the nearby Kaiser Permanente Hospital was under threat- fire charging straight towards it. So firefighter Jason Jenkins rushed over. [pause] The big question was what to do with all the patients. Whether they were safer hunkering down in the building with the medical supplies or if they needed to evacuate. All this complicated by the fact that some patients couldn't even move on their own.

Jason Jenkins  23:45

I didn't want to say yes, let's shelter in place and not have fire engines there to be able to protect it. And then the hospital turns into a morgue. That wasn't an option.

Jacob Margolis  23:55

With the hospital filling with smoke and not enough resources to stop the fire, the call was made to get everyone out. [music in] Jason and police officers started evacuating everyone they could, packing people into ambulances, buses and even cars belonging to hospital employees. But still they needed to buy some time, make sure that none of the embers raining down on the hospital caught it on fire.

Jason Jenkins  24:20

And so I was able to get the maintenance staff and I just said, Hey, look, if we're going to save this hospital, it's going to be you guys tonight. And they looked at me with their eyes absolutely massive. Like, what do you mean? And I said, Get every fire extinguisher you can find and get 'em all up to the top of that roof. You guys put every fire out you see in the roof and do not come off that roof until I find you. I thought at best we were at 50/50 to be able to save it.

Jacob Margolis  24:46

The fire was moving straight towards Kaiser, burning through Journey's End, the mobile home park next door. To save Kaiser, Jason says they had to keep the last row of homes right next to the hospital from burning. Hard to do when you don't have a bunch of fire crews available to help. But then, Jason caught a break. There was a small volunteer crew from Valley Ford nearby. He grabbed them, took them to a ditch next to the hospital and said:

Jason Jenkins  25:12

Keep those BTUs and, and the flames, you know, off that last row of houses, and they looked back at me and thought I was crazy. Because I mean yeah, there's 100-foot flame lengths, you know, dozens and dozens of, of, you know, units burning, and the officer, young officer said this was his first significant fire. And I, I pat him on the back. I said, mine too. We got this. No problem. Failure's, kind of not an option. We don't have many other choices here, so let's, let's cheerlead 'em up and get 'em going. And the crew of three, that fire engine [sirens] got in there and kept all of those units from ever catching fire. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  26:00

They managed to evacuate all of the patients. But most of the homes in the mobile home park next door burned down. Two people died there. Across the highway, the fire was bearing down on another neighborhood with more than 1000 homes, and one woman seven months pregnant, needed to get out. That story when we come back. [break]

Jacob Margolis  26:29

According to state fire maps, Coffey Park is far from anywhere that'd be at risk of burning. Melissa Geissinger certainly wasn't expecting fire. She was home with her husband, two dogs, and two cats, seven months pregnant.

Melissa Geissinger  26:42

The moment I stepped out the front door, there was this wall of thick, hot air that just hit. It immediately dried out my mouth, all the way down into my throat and I couldn't breathe. And all I could think about was the baby.

Jacob Margolis  27:03

And then all of a sudden, the fire was almost right at her door.

Melissa Geissinger  27:08

We kind of stopped and, and looked at each other like, let's go. [running sounds] Running around the house and thinking to myself, is this replaceable? Yes, no, move on, or grab it.

Jacob Margolis  27:21

Photo albums, letters from old friends.

Melissa Geissinger  27:23

[wind ambi] A signed poster from Kenny Loggins, [laughs] who I knew growing up.

Jacob Margolis  27:30

And a bowl of fruit.

Melissa Geissinger  27:32

That was weird. Yeah, I was like, I might be hungry later. Like, I'm just like thinking of the baby.

Jacob Margolis  27:37

They ran out of their house into their car, which was filled with ash because she accidentally left the windows open.

Melissa Geissinger  27:43

And then the neighb- our neighbor [music in] comes out and he's in his boxers. And he's like, What the hell's going on? And so I just see, you know, I see my husband talking to him. And he's just like, you know, telling him what's going on and that there's a fire coming, and so he ran back in the house to get his family up and awake and out. As we were just pulling out of the neighborhood, I just started like, laying on the horn just to try and wake people up as much as possible.

Jacob Margolis  28:10

Crews drove down the street with loudspeakers, trying to get as many people to leave as fast as possible. Embers as large as dinner plates whipping past firefighters and police officers, catching homes on fire left and right. One firefighter saw a car catch on fire and the wind was so strong that the flames blew sideways across the street, catching another car on fire. And in the background of all this chaos, there's ammunition cooking off inside homes as they burned, captured on video by Martin Espinoza of the Press Democrat:

Martin Espinoza  28:42

[audio clip] [blasts] Those sound like gunshot, like, and ammo. These houses are completely gone. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  29:01

Five people died in Coffey Park that night. One person still in their bed. Another ran into her house to save the family dog but never came back out. And another was caught in between homes. A firefighter tried to free her but had to leave when flames got too hot. [pause] Melissa made it out and drove to her parents' house. When she got there, she walked onto the deck and looked back towards the city.

Melissa Geissinger  29:26

And I just remember just seeing the, the skyline of Santa Rosa completely on fire. And it was so surreal. It was terrifying.

Jacob Margolis  29:38

By the end of the night, nearly 1500 homes there had been destroyed, including Melissa's.

Jacob Margolis  29:43

[music in] By the time the sun rose over the hills of Santa Rosa, the winds had died down and the fire had passed, at least at the house where Armando had been staying, probably because there wasn't anything left to burn. The house was gone. And the pool where Armando had held Carmen throughout the night, was just a thick muck. The water had evaporated and filled with debris. [music out]

Armando Berriz  30:14

She died in my arms. There were no goodbyes. She looked at me kind of funny and her head fell sideways. Uh, the autopsy said that her heart and lungs could not take the stress of the fire. I didn't have a lot of strength left, and I was able to, just to put my wife on the first level of the steps down into the pool. I couldn't get her totally out of the pool. I crawled after that, and I either passed out or fell asleep. I don't know which, but one of the two. Then when I woke up she was still there. Nothing had changed. At first I thought, Well, somebody's gonna come in and get us but then, then I said I don't think so. So I, I look for shoes, and I, I took one of my wife's sandals and one of my shoes that I found floating on the debris and put them on and I started walking downhill. [music in]

Armando Berriz  31:46

I would walk on the, the street and sometimes I would walk around debris, fallen limbs and, and um, it, it was crazy because there were pets that had been let out, like wild horses, that were running all over the place and, and I, I must have walked a mile, mile and a half before I saw the uh, the fire truck.

Jacob Margolis  32:18

When I met up with Armando, we sat alone in a house that he'd just moved into. Largely [music out] empty living room, boxes still needing to be unpacked, though pictures of his kids, Carmen and a map of where they'd traveled to, already up on the wall. He told me, this is what it's like when you're 80 and starting over.

Armando Berriz  32:38

The, the disruption of that fire for me was total. Uh, in one moment you got everything going and you, your life is pretty automatic and you're enjoying it and all of that, and all of a sudden you got zero. You, you lose direction, and, and then what do you do? You don't have a partner anymore, or someone to, to change uh, thoughts or views. And then again, you survive and pu- like you're walking, you're take the first step and then the second step.

Jacob Margolis  33:19

[music in] By the morning, fire crews from all over had shown up to help. Nine people died in the Tubbs Fire, but it was only one of the many northern California fires that night. Across the region, 44 people were killed. Investigators later found there was a huge messaging mistake that might have cost lives. Ideally when a disaster hits and people need to be evacuated, emergency coordinators or first responders send out wireless emergency alerts telling people... get out of there. They're seen as one of the best ways to quickly communicate with the public in an emergency because every cell phone is automatically enrolled in the system. Sonoma County, which includes the city of Santa Rosa, didn't send any alerts through that system the whole night. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it was because the county was concerned about alerting too many people outside of the immediate evacuation areas. The night of the Tubbs Fire, county emergency officials opted to use a text message system that only some people in Santa Rosa are enrolled in. A county spokesperson told us that since the Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County has worked to increase their capacity to respond to future fires and other disasters. Another issue that came up is that a number of people who died in the fires were older and/or had access and functional needs, which looks like it could have made it more difficult for them to evacuate. A few years later, the state auditor found that there weren't effective measures in place to take care of those with disabilities in the event of a disaster, not just in Sonoma County but in other places as well- a problem that I'd argue is still very much present. [pause] We'd had bad fires in California before, but the Tubbs Fire felt uniquely awful. Its scale, the deaths, that it seemed to do so many things so many of us assumed fires weren't supposed to do- like jump freeways, burn entire city neighborhoods, overwhelmed the entirety of our huge and expensive emergency response infrastructure. The next five years brought more of the same. In the month that followed, California got hit by its largest fire on record. And the next year, the Camp Fire killed more than 80 people and burned down the town of Paradise. In 2021, fires crossed the tops of the Sierra Nevada, for the first time in recent history. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  35:52

It all feels like too much. It is too much. And it's something that Rachel and I talk a lot about- just this feeling of being overwhelmed.

Rachel  36:03

It forces you to play it out in your mind, right? Like, if a fire comes here, what would happen? And that's not what you ever want to think about. My first inclination is to shut down, to worry, and then to go into denial, and not do anything about it.

Jacob Margolis  36:23

Do you think the more we've done all this, the more mentally [Rachel: Yes.] it's like, do you think that it's [Rachel: Yeah.] been easier to handle over time?

Rachel  36:29

Yeah, the more that we've done, it's, the less overwhelming it's felt to prepare for an emergency. And that's really all you can do, you know, with natural disaster, with climate change, with anything in your life, you empower yourself within your life. And you prepare however you can, and that feels like most of the control you have over these bigger issues.

Jacob Margolis  36:55

[music in] In this season of the podcast, we're gonna give you a wildfire survival guide. In fact, later we'll have a whole advice episode, where we break down big questions like: What should be in your emergency kit? And how do you survive in a house that catches on fire while you're in it? I'll walk you through what to do. But we all know that individual action alone isn't going to stop the mega fires. So we're also going to try to find a way forward, a way through this mess- together. Story by story, we'll explore how we got here, how we keep screwing things up, and what big changes we need to make to survive and even work towards a better future while the world around us burns. [music out]

Jacob Margolis  37:56

[music in] [credits] A special thank you to Michelle and Dan Hickman, Armando and Monica Berriz, Jason Jenkins, Tony Gossener, David Culley and Erica Tom- all for sharing their stories with us. The Big Burn is created, written, reported and hosted by me, Jacob Margolis. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts, and Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the Executive Producers for LAist Studios. Our producer is Minju Park. Additional production and sound design in this episode by Natalie Chudnovsky. Our intern is Bruno Lopez Vega. Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck is the senior producer. Editing by Sophia Paliza-Carre and Meg Cramer. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by Andy Clausen. Our website, LAist.com, is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for this show by Dan Carino. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family, and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. [music out]