UC Berkeley students uprooted by devastating North Bay fires

'It just looks like a war zone'

David Vidaurri/Courtesy

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The smoke from the North Bay fires, which has covered Berkeley in hazy skies since Sunday evening, will soon begin to dissipate. But for students whose homes were in the fire’s path, the devastation will not fade in the near future.

“My house, my neighborhood, my whole area has been demolished,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Marina Vidaurri, who comes from Fountaingrove in northern Santa Rosa, an area hit particularly hard by the North Bay fires.

Seventeen wildfires, which began to burn Sunday evening across California and some of which continue to burn, have killed at least 17 people and destroyed about 1,500 buildings, according to a California Statewide Fire Summary released Tuesday by CAL FIRE. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Monday.

The largest fires in the state began in Napa County before spreading to Sonoma County, according to Brown’s statement released Monday. The counties are located about 50 miles and about 80 miles north of Berkeley, respectively.

Vidaurri said her family knocked on their neighbors’ doors, grabbed their valuables and fled to her aunt’s house in Windsor, about 10 miles north of Fountaingrove, early Monday morning. Vidaurri and her family have been unable to return to their home since then, she said, but they obtained a picture of their house — only a staircase remains intact, leading to nothing but rubble.

“I’m always so happy about where I’m from,” Vidaurri said. “Now it just looks like a war zone.”

Berkeley Fire Department acting fire chief David Brannigan said BFD sent one engine to Napa County on Monday. He added that BFD had to make sure that a local grass fire in the North Berkeley Hills was under control before sending aid elsewhere.

UC Berkeley senior Bree Cassells, who commutes to campus from her Santa Rosa home where she lives with her husband and three children, said she woke up to the smell of smoke seeping through her open window early Monday morning. At first, Cassells said she thought it was a campfire, until her father-in-law called about 3:30 a.m. to warn her and her family about the fires.

Cassells and her family evacuated themselves to west Santa Rosa. Referring to the bright yellow light that illuminated the Santa Rosa sky about 4 a.m. on Monday, Cassells said it “looked like the most beautiful sunrise ever” and “felt like the apocalypse.”

Cassells’ house has so far been untouched by the fire, although she was instructed to evacuate Tuesday evening because the fire was expected to be in her neighborhood by the next morning.

While Vidaurri and Cassells are aware of the current state of their homes, other students are less certain. UC Berkeley junior and arts and entertainment writer at The Daily Californian Julia Bertolero, whose family lives south of Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, said she does not know if her family’s house is still standing.

“My high school burned down, my elementary school burned down, but my family’s safe. I think more than anything, I feel lucky,” Bertolero said. “It’s crazy that all this stuff is happening at your childhood home, and you’re so powerless to do anything.”

UC Berkeley senior Siena Guerrazzi, whose Glen Ellen house did not burn down, said she at first felt relief but then thought of her community as a whole.

“There was this immediate sense that our businesses, our lives, our communities will be forever changed,” Guerrazzi said.

Cassells expressed concern about the media focus on places that are most likely to rebuild, such as wineries and hotels, rather than on people whose mobile homes have been destroyed and who do not have insurance.

“I feel like some of the human aspect of it is being lost a little bit,” Cassells said. “The community doesn’t consist of just wineries. We’re a tight-knit community of people who have lived here for generations.”

Contact Danielle Kaye at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.