When catastrophic wildfires last swept southern California in 2003, Neil Horowitz ’09 — then a high school junior — evacuated his home with his family. But this time, he is stuck thousands of miles away, getting updates from the Internet and checking in with his parents in between midterm study sessions.
Raging fires have burned more than 250,000 acres since last week, destroying nearly 2,000 homes and leaving eight California residents dead. Yalies from the San Diego and Los Angeles areas said keeping track of the resulting evacuations from the other side of the country has been stressful, but no students interviewed said they think their families are in imminent danger.
State authorities have responded more quickly and efficiently than in the past, ordering massive and orderly evacuations of more than 500,000 people to avoid the chaos that characterized the 2003 fire, many students said. But the improvement does not make the situation any less scary, the California natives said.
Some Elis said government officials dropped the ball four years ago by not giving evacuation orders until fires were cresting over the hills.
Ariel Patashnik ’09 said families were not asked to evacuate until fires were less than a quarter of a mile away from their homes, leaving roads gridlocked and families without time to pack up their belongings. But this time around, students said, family and friends were able to take more time, loading their cars with photograph albums and homecoming dresses.
As firefighters reined in the majority of the flames Thursday, most students’ families had already returned to their houses earlier in the week after seeking refuge in the homes of friends and family, students said.
But some families were only given the approval to return home last night. Michelle Wolfe ’11 said her house is fine, but at least five homes in her Rancho Santa Fe community are confirmed to have been damaged by the wildfires. She said her family stayed with friends in nearby La Jolla until late Thursday.
“They’re living with four other families and a lot of animals,” Wolfe said. “It’s a zoo in there. There are dogs and cats and my bird, and they also have someone’s rabbit.”
The hardest part of being so far from home has been separating reality from rumor, students said. Elis concerned about whether the houses being destroyed belong to their friends and neighbors said the only way for them to remain sane is not to believe everything they hear about the fires.
Some California Yalies said communication with families at home has been intermittent because authorities have asked people to refrain from using their cell phones in order to keep the airwaves clear for emergency signals. But a few spent Tuesday — when President Bush declared a state of emergency for seven California counties — calling home as often as possible.
Even when phone calls do go through, students said they often know more about the fires than their parents, who have been unable to watch the news while caught in evacuation traffic.
Horowitz said the usually one-and-a-half hour drive to Los Angeles from San Diego took his parents eight hours, but like all students interviewed, he said they are taking no chances. Although his home was spared in the 2003 fires, the flames wiped out most of his neighborhood, Horowitz said. He wrote in an e-mail that he remembers “feeling the heat from the blaze” as he evacuated.
“I had two midterms on Tuesday,” Horowitz said. “I was trying to study while at the same time watching my local news online.”
Patashnik said that although her home is not directly threatened this time, the wind could change at any moment, which provides a constant distraction from her schoolwork.
But the fires’ impact on Yalies has not been entirely negative. Many students interviewed said the fires have given them a reason to meet with others from their home state whom they might otherwise have missed in the rush of midterms.
“The fires make that California bond all the more important,” said Alena Gribskov ’09, who is from San Diego.
Students said while many Yalies who are not from California are aware of the wildfire, many of them do not realize its impact on students from the affected areas. But once friends do find out, they tend to be incredibly supportive.
“After I told my roommate, she gave me her teddy bear and told me to hold on to it,” Wolfe said.