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A Student’s First Hand Experience with the California Wildfires

By:  Marisa Papagelis and Sarissa Volin

In December, Southern California was ravaged with wildfires.  There were over 29 wildfires and six of which caused widespread devastation to surrounding communities.  Over 230,000 people had to evacuate their homes as over 282,000 acres were burned.  

As a part of an East Coast/West Coast Journalism collaboration, Lobby-O editors Marisa Papagelis and Sarissa Volin have been in contact with two seniors from Buena Vista High School in Ventura, CA who are editors of their high school newspaper.  Julie Madsen and Jacob Romero were directly affected by the California wildfires.  Through a recent email interview with Julie Madsen, Papagelis and Volin asked the following questions about Madsen’s first hand experience with the California wildfires.  

(Julie Madsen, senior at Buena Vista High School, Ventura, CA)

Was this your first experience with a large California wildfire? If this has happened before, when did it happen?

The Thomas Fire is actually the second California wildfire I’ve experienced. The first happened when I was in elementary school– I think I was six or seven. In December, when I saw the Thomas Fire, my mind immediately brought me back when I was six. The sight of the fires were almost the same: bright red flames burning behind the hills that surrounded Ventura. The only difference was that the Thomas Fire made it to our side of the hill.

Did you or anyone you know have to relocate from their homes? Where did they relocate to?

I know multiple people who had to relocate from their homes. My friend who lives on “the Avenue” (an area located in downtown Ventura) was placed under a mandatory evacuation. She and her family went to Bakersfield with some friends. She told me that when she returned home, smoke had literally seeped into every part of her home. She also said that a few homes up her street and a street over had major fire damage or were burned down completely. My other friend went to Malibu to escape the flames and smoke.

How did the community react to the event?

Everyone was in panic initially, of course. Wildfires aren’t very unusual in Southern California; we had never had a fire affect us so much. Like I said, when large fires come in our area, it never passes the hill…it always stays on the other side. I don’t think any of us were prepared for such devastation. When I went to bed that night, I remember my mom telling me ‘Oh there’s a fire in Santa Paula’ and I was concerned about the people in SP, but I went to bed kind of oblivious– I really didn’t think it would reach Ventura so quickly or at all. I think most of us in Ventura felt the same way…it was just another fire and it would go out like all of them do. But man were we wrong.

How did the community recover from the event?

We’re still in the process of recovering. I don’t know how long it will take to get over the devastation. But, we’re moving on. There has been so much unity within Ventura. I feel like we’re just a lot nicer to each other now. It’s kind of funny to say, but I think you can even feel the friendliness while driving. My mom and I were on the road during the fire and people were letting us merge into traffic and there was more… etiquette on the road– that’s something you don’t really see while driving in Ventura and Southern California. Everyone is just going and going… but for some reason it feels like we’re all taking a second to spread love to each other even on the road. It’s just crazy to see how close we have come together as a community.

How long were you out of school?

I was out of school for 5 weeks total. School was canceled due to the fire on Monday night, December 5. School was closed due to the fire for 3 weeks (Dec 5-22). Then it was winter break, so that made it a total of 5 weeks missing school. We finally returned on January 8, 2018.

How did this affect your schoolwork and midterms?

Missing three unplanned weeks of school has definitely affected school. I don’t even like missing a day of school, even when I feel like I’m dying of sickness. We’ve spent the past two weeks kind of reviewing curriculum and trying to pick up where we last left off. I’m taking 4 AP classes this semester and that has affected AP testing. Losing so much time of preparation really puts me back. I’m going to really have to study and work hard to make up for those weeks. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen for finals. Our finals are next week…usually I’m freaking out and studying a ton, but I don’t even know what to study. The fire has really messed up curriculum. Hopefully I’ll get some more direction and information from my classes this week about finals.

Did this affect your college applications?

It didn’t really affect college applications. I finished applying to all 16 of my colleges during the first week of January. I already had my letters of rec and additional papers uploaded. The fire actually allowed me to spend a lot of time to work on the applications that I wouldn’t have had during school. So in that way, the fire was beneficial for me.

How long will it be until everything is back to normal?

That is the question everyone is asking themselves. I don’t have the answer. But I think it’ll take years to recover from the Thomas Fire. I’ll  remember the panic and chaos it created for the rest of my life. My friends don’t have homes, people lost their clothes, their photos, their whole entire life. Everywhere I look there is something to remind me of the Thomas Fire. Downtown is destroyed. There are buildings in rubble, homes around town that are ash. There are melted cars in driveways. There’s still ash on my porch. We were talking about the fire in my Literature class, and we were talking about how it seems like we will always separate time  in terms of “before the fire” and “after the fire.” The news has moved on from Ventura and the Thomas Fire, but we sure won’t.

How is your family doing after all of this?

My family is okay. We live right at the base of the hill and we were ready to leave. The northern part of my street was under mandatory evacuation. Homes right up my street are destroyed. I drive past them all the time. It took a long time to get over the trauma of the fire. It didn’t feel like Christmas. We didn’t feel right celebrating when people in our community didn’t have homes. The fire took the life out of us. My mom and I tried to help those who were affected. We bought a ton of gift cards from Target and burger restaurants around town. We were able to give some to the firefighters who were in town and we were able to talk to them and give them our gratitude and thanks. When we drove in a neighborhood that was hit pretty hard, we were able to talk to the owners of a home that was burned down and give them a target gift card. It’s not enough to replace everything, but we thought they might be able to get the essentials and try to build their lives again.

How are you coping with life after the wildfire?

I’m okay. I’m trying to put the fire in the past. It’s hard to though. There are still traces of the Thomas Fire in Ventura. This is certainly not how I imagined my senior year. But I’m trying to move on. I have senior ball next week and I’ve been focusing on getting ready for that. I’ve gotten some college acceptances already. Little things are helping me stay positive. Being in school helps… I need that sense of routine. Honestly, I’ll be okay. I didn’t lose anything. I still have my family and a home. My friends and I don’t talk about the fire that much. We’re back to worrying about our Calculus test and scholarship applications now. Even my friend who lost his home seems back to normal. People lost so much, but we still have hope and grit. I think it could’ve been a lot worse. More people could’ve died. I wrote an article about the fire in our newest issue, and I think that was my final closure. I’m not going to talk about it anymore. We all have to move on. It’ll be okay.

As Westborough seniors, we pictured our last year in high school with fun memories, exciting perks, and college acceptances. For Southern California students like Madsen, she had the same outlook. Unfortunately, she and her classmates’ senior year was tragically affected by these fires. It is unimaginable to us to think about what the Ventura community has been through.

If you are interested in making a donation to the Ventura community, please click on the link below:


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