We Didn’t Start the Fire

The Freeway Complex fires covering the Orange County area burned a total of 30,305 acres, destroyed 187 residences and left 127 houses severely damaged, according to the Orange County Fire Department’s battalion chief, Kris Concepcion.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated that the state costs to fight the fires could reach $16.1 million. Transcending finances, the fires have taken both an emotional and physical toll on individuals.
Concepcion attributed the cause of the Freeway Complex fires to the traffic alert converter on the 101 Freeway. The fires also jumped several freeways in a matter of hours, crossing from one town to another, hitting four counties in total.
On Nov. 15, the first day of the fires, second-year political science major Tariq Mahmoud Hassan was driving on the 57 Freeway heading to a camping trip with some friends.
“We were going around a dark hill, and there was a lot of traffic,” Hassan said, “At one point, we hit a cloud of smoke where all around us it’s as dark as night; the sun is red and the car is hot.”
Moving at around five mph, they continued driving, as the fire persistently spread.
“We could see flames at the top of a hill and all of a sudden saw the bottom of the hill catch fire,” Hassan said.
After eventually passing through the smoke, they saw police and firefighters immediately shut down the freeway.
The fire quickly spread to Anaheim Hills, among other areas. Anaheim Hills resident Bronson Smith, a first-year biological sciences major, was flipping through television channels when he saw the Yorba Linda fires on the news. Concerned about his parents’ houses, his father’s in Yorba Linda and his mother’s in Anaheim Hills, he called both of his parents, but neither answered. Eventually, Smith was informed by his brother that their Anaheim Hills house had been evacuated.
“I was on Facebook talking to a friend who lives near me who told me that after his house had been evacuated, he had gone back to get his stuff, but police and firefighters had stopped him at the barricade, giving him a hassle. He snuck back around, got his stuff and was stuck on the freeway,” Smith said.
According to Smith, his friend said the freeway resembled a parking lot with cars unable to move as the fire rapidly approached them. As the fire jumped over Weir Canyon, Smith said his friend witnessed “people abandoning their cars because they weren’t moving and the fire was advancing.”
After hearing one friend’s story, Smith began talking to another fellow neighbor who had also tried to sneak back into his house in order to grab necessities and valuables only to find his next-door-neighbor’s house consumed with flames.
“Later, I pulled my neighborhood up on Google Maps and zoomed in on my street – half of it was on fire,” Smith said. “I finally contacted my parents and heard that my step-dad had stayed behind with my neighbor who is a firefighter and they had a fire hose out and were wetting down all the other houses.”
Although the fires were not spreading from house-to-house, the whole hill where many homes were located was aflame. They wanted to ensure that those flaming debris falling from the hill were not going to set the other houses on fire, as many of the other neighboring houses were catching on fire and producing more falling debris.
“The next day when I woke up, I looked at the map again and there was a bullet next to my house that said, ‘Morningstar, 10 houses burned’ and I thought, great; it doesn’t say which houses burned; it just says 10 houses burned,” Smith said. “I think it was actually midday Sunday when I had heard that my house was okay.”
In addition to the damaged homes, the fires also created physical risks for people in the surrounding areas and neighborhoods.
According to Nieves Navera, the clinical nurse supervisor at the UC Irvine Student Health Center, two to three students came in for treatment for asthmatic attacks since the wildfires began. However, she did not specify to what extent the fires contributed to these attacks.
Still, according to Professor Robert Phalen of the UCI School of Medicine, the smoke particles that hit Irvine following this year’s fires were enough to trigger health concerns for those with pre-existing conditions.
“There will always be a fraction of students that have a pre-existing condition that will make them vulnerable even to the … low air pollution levels we experienced here,” Phalen said.
Phalen listed individuals with asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and emphysema among those who are more susceptible to the effects of smoke particles. Phalen also mentioned that individuals without pre-existing conditions can also be affected by smoke particles as they cause headaches, tiredness and make it more difficult for individuals to sleep.
According to Professor Michael Kleinman of the Department of Community and Environmental Medicine at UCI, the effects of the fire are currently not at a particularly harmful level to Irvine residents.
“In terms of exposures because the wind directions have changed, there’s a lot broader coverage, but the concentration of particles is somewhat lower,” Kleinman said. “The concentrations are higher than normal, but not at a level I’d consider a health hazard at this point.”
Kleinman stated that the fires’ impact on Orange County was far reduced from last year when smoke particles hit Irvine with greater concentration and for a longer duration of time. According to Kleinman, due to wind direction many smoke particles failed to reach Irvine.
“We didn’t have too many fires heading toward San Diego and inland, so the fires were mainly north of us and the wind direction pretty much took the smoke out to sea north of us … we didn’t really get any major impact until toward the end of the situation when the wind direction changed,” Kleinman said.
Because of the low air pollutions, UCI will not be as affected by the wildfires as it has been in the past. Still, there is no telling if students have heard all there is to hear from the fires just yet.
“Last year we canceled some outdoor events because the levels of particulates were too high for safety. This year, I don’t believe we’ve had to do that, but it depends on what happens. The fire season is just not over yet and it’s possible that we’ll have additional burn,” Kleinman said.
Still, according to Dan Cooper a doctor at the UCI General Clinical Research Center, the effect of the fires on Irvine is likely to have passed its peak.
“[Health problems are] pretty much related to the time the air is most polluted so we’d be over any acute crisis by now,” Cooper said.