SCU and CZU Lightning Complex fires cause stress as fear of evacuation looms

A firefighter checks part of a tree in a redwood grove damaged by fire in Healdsburg, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jim Wilson/The New York Times.)

The smell of smoke lingers in the Bay Area as the SCU and CZU Lightning Complex fires burn, causing a surge of fear and anxiety for members of the UPA community.

The SCU (Santa Clara Unit) Lightning Complex began abruptly due to lightning strikes on Aug. 18. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recorded that the fires have burned through multiple locations in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. As of Sept. 6, the fire is active and has burned through 396,624 acres, is 92% contained and has destroyed 222 structures. 

“We had ash in Santa Cruz like snow,” science teacher Loren Schwinge, who lives in Santa Cruz county north of the CZU Lightning Complex Fires, said. “It was just this constant falling and our cars and everything in our life was just covered in ash.” 

Evacuation orders and evacuation warnings from CAL Fire were concurrently issued on Aug. 23, affecting several areas in Santa Clara County, but have now been cleared for reentry. Senior Aghalya Narayanan lives approximately two miles from the evacuation order zone and explained her concerns about the fires, in relation to her schoolwork. 

“I think the fires are just stressing everyone out, so they can’t really focus on their schoolwork; I know I can’t,” Narayanan said. “It’s just making me lose a lot of motivation.” 

Natalie Lyons tries to comfort her shell-shocked cat. Lyons and her husband slept in their car after evacuating from their home in Felton, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jim Wilson/The New York Times.)

Junior Ashritha Cheeyandira lives less than a mile from a evacuation zone 3B and, like Naryanan, lost focus on school as a result of the potential evacuation of her area.

“When we got the notice of a possible evacuation, me and my parents were really scared so we just started packing things up,” Cheeyandira said. “It all moved so fast. And now, we have a bunch of boxes in our house with important documents, paintings and stuff.” 

Because of the possible evacuation scares, Narayanan feels teachers could do more to acknowledge students’ circumstances. 

“This is just a crazy situation on top of COVID-19 and Zoom, to be working with the danger that you have to leave your house at any minute,” Narayanan said. “But, teachers are kind of ignoring the situation and still giving us as much work as they normally would, instead of addressing the situation. So many people are being really affected in our school.” 

Cheeyandira, on the other hand, feels teachers are making an effort to sympathize with their students and are doing their best to comply with students’ needs. 

Many fires around the state were sparked by lightning strikes in the high heat around Aug. 18, and then fanned by winds. (Photo courtesy of Jim Wilson/The New York Times.)

“I told one teacher about my situation, and she was really supportive,” Cheeyandira said. “She was like, ‘If you need anything, just let me know,’ so I think the teachers are doing a good job at genuinely caring for their students.”

According to Cheeyandira, several other teachers also sent their support to students with messages like “I hope you all are safe” and “Take care.” 

For teachers, helping students is difficult because of the lack of control they have on students’ locations and situations. The amount of help they can provide is limited. 

“For distance learning, we [teachers] can decide how much work we give you and we can decide when you get breaks,” Schwinge said. “But, I have zero control of where you live, and if you’re close to an evacuation zone or how scared you are. And so, for a lot of us it’s super stressful because we know how hard it is, and we can’t help.”

The constant worry of leaving her home depletes her energy in addition to the thought of her students’ safety. 

“Just constant vigilance and waiting; it’s so draining,” Schwinge said. “It’s just so exhausting just kind of waiting to see if something will happen or if you’ll be fine.”

Firefighters battled to get control of the blazes in Napa, Calif., which were caused by lightning strikes. (Photo courtesy of Neal Waters/EPA, via Shutterstock.)

At a CAL Fire press conference on Aug. 24, Jake Hess, unit chief of the Santa Clara CAL Fire unit, explained that the evacuation orders are extreme in order to allow more time for the residents and citizens to be safe and be protected from the fires. 

“Our room for error, the margin for error, is zero, with the receptive fuel beds that we are experiencing with these lightning strikes,” Hess said. “We are going to have to evacuate more often and more people and give people an early warning so they have time.”  

Because the current priority is safety, as Narayanan and Cheeyandira mentioned, schoolwork and responsibilities are farther down the list. 

“My students have told me that they feel so stressed out, they don’t want to care about anything else,” Schwinge said. “So many [students] feel like, ‘How is this relevant to me right now, when I have all this stuff going on and all these worries? How is learning about the molecular weight of carbon important to me right now?’ There’s no real answer to that.”

Smoke looms above east foothills, due to the fires in Mt. Hamilton, part of the SCU Lightning Complex Fires. (Alyssa Garcia)