Ex-suburbanite in California: 'Nothing prepares you for the unpredictability of the fires'

  • Residences, if not all the trees, were leveled by the wildfire line in a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif.

    Residences, if not all the trees, were leveled by the wildfire line in a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif. Associated Press

  • Mark Ludwig, a former Daily Herald reporter and copy editor, is an associate professor of journalism and communication studies at California State University in Sacramento.

    Mark Ludwig, a former Daily Herald reporter and copy editor, is an associate professor of journalism and communication studies at California State University in Sacramento.

 
By Mark D. Ludwig
Updated 11/16/2018 9:23 AM
Mark Ludwig is a former reporter and copy editor whose first job was at the Daily Herald. He was raised in Arlington Heights and is now an associate professor of journalism and communication studies at California State University in Sacramento.

The video is compelling yet horrifying: walls of fire rushing ahead mercilessly, towers of flames in a devil's dance reaching ever higher, exhausted firefighters vainly trying to gain an upper hand.

And then comes the aftermath: drone videos of block after incinerated block, no houses standing, shells of cars and trucks, ash everywhere. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 15,000 structures were gone, nearly 9,000 of them residences. It still burns.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nearly 60 have died, and many more remain missing.

All of this is happening at the Camp Fire 90 miles from Sacramento, California, where I now live. It is not something a childhood in the Chicago suburbs prepares you for.

The only risk in Sacramento, this time, is bad air, but a decade ago, my family had a closer encounter with wildfire -- the Witch Fire that charred a large swath of San Diego County in 2007. Our house backed up to a scrub-covered hill, bone dry most of the year, which was always a concern.

As the Witch Fire burned not very far from that house, I had checked its progress before bedtime. It was already making its way into the far northern neighborhoods of San Diego, but we appeared to be OK.

The next morning, I checked again to find our neighborhood was under an evacuation order. We had not received a reverse 911 call, at least not yet. I looked out the window but didn't see any imminent danger. I woke my wife, Cathy, and my daughter and son (in high school at the time). We packed up a few things, including some pictures, and headed south.

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At the time, Cathy was an editor at San Diego's daily newspaper, so we went to the newsroom to wait -- and to worry. At least Cathy could keep busy, helping to coordinate the fire coverage. For Ashley and Christoph and I, it was many hours of trying to remain distracted, occasionally turning to the TV for updates. The pictures were grim and the anxiety high.

We spent two days in that newsroom, waiting for the fire in its southwest march to reach our neighborhood. We were lucky -- it never got there, but it got pretty close.

By the time that fire was out, more than 1,100 residences had been lost. Two people died.

My first experience with a California wildfire was the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, where one of my colleagues lost a home. But that one, and the San Diego County fire we endured in 2007, pale in comparison to the blaze now ravaging Northern California.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

These are not the sorts of disasters my siblings and I learned to deal with while growing up in Arlington Heights. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes? I know what to do. Blizzards? Check. But nothing prepares you for the unpredictability of the fires.

Don't even get me started on the earthquakes.

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