Fast-moving blazes and evacuations the new normal for many Californians

Jul 10, 2018

Wildfires continue to burn across California. In the northern part of the state, a fire that’s burned tens of thousands of acres and forced many to evacuate has now jumped into Oregon. Over the weekend a rash of high temperatures and dry winds sparked fires across the Central Coast and in southern California. A fast-moving fire in the city of Goleta tore through 100 acres and destroyed 13 homes in a matter of hours.

This story originally aired July 10, 2018 during NPR’s Morning Edition.

Goleta sits in Santa Barbara County and is home to hills and beaches, and usually great weather. But last weekend county officials were definitely on edge. Kelly Hoover is with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

“It was an unbelievable night,” Hoover said. “I went out to dinner and you could just feel the heat. All you could think about is please don’t let there be a fire. This would not be good. Especially with the wind that was going on at the same time. It was just bizarre.”

The fire was first reported at 8:40 PM on Friday night, July 6. Dana and Patty Driskel remember the smell.

"I couldn't believe anyone would be foolish enough to be doing a barbecue,” Dana Driskel said. “But I could smell smoke and then I realized, 'Oh my god, it’s right over there on the other side of the hill and it’s coming this way.'"

Dana Driskel turned to his wife and said, “And that’s when I yelled for you to go.”

"He yelled 'the big one is here, we gotta get out now,'" Patty Driskel said.

Like a well-oiled machine, Santa Barbara County’s fire, emergency and public safety teams went into action. 500 firefighters from across the state descended on the blaze. Thousands of people were issued mandatory evacuation orders.

Nicole Jordan was with her elderly mother at a Red Cross shelter.

“They do this to us every year,” Jordan said. “We’re always at risk. I left because the police came, [and said] ‘Get Out! Get Out!’”

In the days that followed, people began returning to their homes—to find out if they still have one.

Dana and Patty Driskel’s home survived, others didn’t.

“Lots of time, there’s a fire and you’ve got a little bit of preparation; there was none last night,” Dana Driskel said on Saturday.

Goleta teenager Jesse Riley returned to the hardest-hit neighborhood with his friends to see if their dirt bikes made it through the night. He said he's almost gotten used to these fires and evacuations.

“This is just normality now,” Riley said. “It’s a pretty regular thing.”

2017 was California’s most destructive wildfires season on record, and several parts of Santa Barbara County are still recovering from last years' fires. With low humidity and dry conditions in the forecast, the fire chief recently reminded residents they have a long summer ahead.