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From Wildfire Survivor to Climate Activist: A Personal Narrative

The fires bred fear in me, but they also bred activism. This is the reason I fight for climate justice.

October 21, 2007

Huddled around our dated Midland NOAA Weather Alert Radio, my family and I held our breaths as we listened to the latest accounts of the sweeping Witch Creek Fire. Absorbing accounts of the all-consuming destruction, we were swept away by stories of the fire preying on our San Diego County community. Then, we heard the update for our neighborhood: Safe to remain indoors. Anxious, but relieved at our good fortune, we dispersed and resumed our daily activities.

Less than one hour later, a blaring sound disrupted our peaceful lunch. Leaping to grab the phone, I eagerly accepted the call, only to hear a pre-recorded voice telling me to leave my home — fast.

Tossing me into his arms, my dad ran to the car and frantically began to pack up computers, clothes, and an assortment of valuable documents. My mom started to stash food into our camping backpack and fill up water bottles like there was no tomorrow. My sister answered a call from her best friend and sat next to me, thrilled at the prospect of evacuation as if it were an episode in her teen adventure series. Bewildered, and perhaps lacking cognizance of the gravity of the situation, my six-year-old mind told me one thing: grab your toys.

Sneaking up the stairs to avoid getting caught, I scrambled to my room to grab my prized possessions. As I entered, I reached for my favorite toy — the dolphin — and was shocked by the red tint to its usually stone-gray fur. Looking up, I caught sight of the red glow coming from the mountains, shedding its light throughout my room. After a full minute of intense staring, my eyes shifted from the red glow as a thin veil of smoke seeped through my windowsill, marching to the somber tone of ambulances blaring in the distance. Alarmed, I froze, unable to comprehend the beast raging towards me in the distance.

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Seized by the urge to flee, I escaped the confines of that horrifying view and rushed back into the car. Skirting out of the garage, my father humorously said, “Say your goodbyes just in case.” No one laughed. Driving nearly 90 miles per hour on the freeway, my family fled to anywhere and everywhere. Guided by our Midland, we first went south towards the ocean in an effort to run from the northern Witch Creek Fire. Hearing the familiar crackle of the Midland, we were redirected west to avoid the McCoy fire coming from the east. Relocated yet again, we were suddenly directed toward the east to avoid the Poomacha fire, which had merged with both the Witch Creek and McCoy fires to create a living, breathing wave of destruction.

Sprinting back across the I-15 freeway to escape the growing monster, we passed our neighborhood park. Peering through the smoke-choked skies, I saw blackened trees twisting in the wind, with the few remaining survivors coated in ash as if a blizzard had streaked through the mountainside. Twisting around to catch one more glimpse of the once-lush countryside, I saw remnants of the blaze fly into the air as ash swirled in the wind, giving the impression of snowflakes falling from the sky in wintertime.

Guided by the instructions spouting from the Midland and my mom’s neighborhood gossip channel, we continued to flee east. Suddenly engulfed by a roaring army of helicopters, we watched as each one swiftly dipped into the nearby lake and carried out bucket load after bucket load of water to drop onto the ever-hungry inferno. Entranced by the plumes of smoke rising from the uncontrollable burning, I passed the rest of the ride in a daze, eventually finding myself at the final destination — a friend’s house nearly 50 miles from where we lived. Shaken, my family and I quickly scurried into the house, pinching our noses to shield ourselves from the putrid smell of melted dreams and charred family heirlooms.

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Sheltering for nearly an entire week, our two families passed the time by closing the windows to avoid the blistering heat outside and drawing the curtains to shield ourselves from the expansive devastation awaiting us. Signaled by the Midland to finally return home, my family grudgingly trudged back to the car and silently drove past the singed landscapes and wreckage outside of our car windows. When we arrived home, we were shell-shocked.

The bones of fallen houses lay all around us, spread out in the circular shape of the cul-de-sac as if for a ceremonial mourning of the dead. Pieces of home appliances, rooftops, and garden decorations lay on the street, acting like mementos of a better, happier past life. Spinning in a full circle, my eyes burned as I took in the ethereal sight: surrounded by mounds of lost belongings lay a tiny, but shiny, treasure — two untouched houses. Falling to my knees, I could not help but wail in relief: my house was safe. Grimly clapping, my dad turned around and shouted at the sky, as if seeking an answer to this dually incredible and torturous sight. Picking up broken pieces of life, we quickly got to action to rebuild our community and the lives burned by the 2007 Witch Creek-Guejito-Poomacha complex fire.

Now, many years later, my life has shaped itself around a consciousness and understanding of the 2007 Fall California firestorms, which, according to the United States Census Bureau, burned 972,147 acres of land and demolished 365 houses in my neighborhood alone. Post-fire, the community scrambled to establish better safety-preparedness. Following the lead of many neighbors, my family began keeping an emergency fire safety kit, along with an earthquake preparedness bag, to combat the increasingly violent instances of climate change havoc in my community.

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As I sit here writing this story, I can name dozens of other incidents that brought back the fear I felt from the Witch Creek Fires. The 2010 Easter Day earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. The 2014 Talega wildfires. The extreme drought warnings of 2016. The list goes on, not just of natural disasters, but of lives and homes and cities destroyed.

But this has not always been the case. According to Volume 11 of Science Direct’s “Weather and Climate Extremes” research guides, natural disasters have nearly tripled in frequency since the 1980s. This trend demonstrates a clear correlation between the occurrence of natural disasters and rising global temperatures. And what’s more, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, the 0.31°F increase of global temperature per decade has played a very important role in sparking this rapid increase in extreme weather incidents, including droughts, extreme heat waves, wildfires, flooding, and hurricane activity. As these incidents continue to occur, more homes will be damaged, more cities will be annihilated, and more lives will be lost.

There are only two remaining choices to silence the greedy giant: the ruin of our Earth as we know it, or a worldwide regulatory turnaround to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “If we want to save our lives, we must fight for them.” I know I will fight to the death to save the lives of our Earth and its inhabitants — and I hope you will too.

Victoria Dinov

UC Berkeley '24

My name is Vicky and I am a freshman at UC Berkeley. I am currently undecided, but considering applied mathematics and/or economics as my major. I am also very passionate about writing, particularly uncovering truths through investigative journalism.
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