Fleeing from the Flames

Fleeing from the Flames

Shortly after the Getty Fire ignited in the early hours Oct. 28, Charlie Albert ’21 received a notification instructing him to prepare for evacuation. A few hours later, Albert’s street was placed under mandatory evacuation and, holding his most valuable belongings, he departed quickly into the morning darkness.

“At first I packed my car and my mom’s car with photographs and paintings, things which we wouldn’t be able to replace had they been destroyed,” Albert said. “I originally drove with my dog into Santa Monica in order to get away from the smoke and closer to the house I would be staying at.”

It was only when he began the evacuation process that Albert was able to comprehend the true magnitude of the fire, he said.

“I only had a few gallons of gas left in my car, so I went to refuel, which was when I saw the extent of the smoke,” Albert said. “That was the first time I had been outside, and even in Santa Monica, the smell of the smoke was strong. The gas station lights also allowed me to see the large amount of ash that was falling.”

The increasingly frequent wildfires peak annually during autumn, a season characterized by dryness and little rain en route to its title as the fire season. In addition to the Getty Fire, the Easy Fire, the Maria Fire and the Kincade Fire are among the recent flames suspected to be in some way caused by power lines, according to KTLA .

In recent years, these fires have burned vast areas of land and interrupted the daily lives of thousands of people. According to CNN, more than 94 thousand acres had been burned throughout California and over one million people were without power, with 17 fires still active as of Oct. 29.
Deven Dees ’22, who lives near one of the 10 structures destroyed by the Getty Fire, had to evacuate around the same time as Albert and said the early morning evacuation was overwhelming.

“I just was so panicked,” Dees said. “I wasn’t even scared, I was just trying to figure out what to pack. I couldn’t think about what was actually happening because I was just so rushed to get everything.”

The Impact of Social Media

Similar to when the Skirball Fire in December 2017 resulted in a two-day school closure and revision of the midterm assessment schedule. Students took to social media to offer support to their peers as word from the school’s emergency notification system informed the community that school would be canceled Oct. 28. More recently, the Woolsey Fire in November 2018, which occurred in Los Angeles County and Ventura Country, burned 151 square miles of land, over 96 thousand acres, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Recently, poor air quality due to smoke from the Saddleridge Fire prompted cancellations of the middle school football and junior varsity and varsity field hockey games at the annual Homecoming Fair on Oct. 12. Science teacher Steve Yang ’08, who was forced to evacuate due to the Saddleridge Fire in Porter Ranch, said that though he had more time to prepare for evacuation than those caught by the Getty Fire, he was still surprised by the speed at which the fire spread.

“The fire had already been burning since 6 p.m. or so out in Sylmar,” Yang said. “The main thing was that we didn’t realize it would reach the other end of the valley so quickly.”

Albert lives in the Pacific Palisades and was not as close to the flames as others at the school, but he said he was worried about his community more than himself.

“I wasn’t too worried about my house being directly affected by the fire as I wasn’t as close to it as others were, but I was very concerned about how a fire in the location that the Getty Fire was in would affect many of my friends, some of whom lived only a mile or two away from what was already burning,” Albert said.

How the School Responded 

President Rick Commons said he and the Crisis Response Team, which consists of ten faculty members including Head of Middle School Jon Wimbish and Head of Upper School Laura Ross, met at 5 a.m., 12 p.m. and 9 p.m. each day during the week of the Getty Fire to maximize the entire community’s well being. Nevertheless, Commons said the team also considered the idea that coming to school might provide a sort of haven from the chaos that was the fires.

“What was interesting to consider was that for a good part of at least one of our conversations, we were talking about school being a safe and reassuring place for people to be because the school was in a safe zone relative to the Getty Fire,” Commons said. “That [meant] school [was] a place of normalcy, friends and a chance to be in a comfortable place where you don’t have to think about the potential of disaster in the moment.”

Likewise, Yang said that even though he had the opportunity to not go to school the day of his evacuation, he thought working would be beneficial.
“I had thought about skipping school that day, but I realized around 3:00 a.m. or so that even if I skipped, I wouldn’t have anything to do all day long,” Yang said. “Rather than sit around, I simply got ready as part of my normal routine and got to school by about 4 a.m. School was a great place to wait it out in the morning, as I had power, reliable internet and easy access to copious amounts of coffee.”

Although this interruption from routine could be academically distressing for students, Albert said that teachers were understanding of evacuees’ situations.

“Everyone was great in terms of making accommodations,” Albert said. “All of my teachers were super understanding and gave us extra time to turn in certain assignments that students who were evacuated didn’t have the resources to complete while evacuated.”

In preparation for the imminent reality of future wildfires, Commons said the administration is considering more long-term solutions for possible school closures.

“We are thinking about whether we need a schedule that has flex days built in, either close to spring break, or toward the end of the year,” Commons said. “That will be new to us. We are in such a new reality with regard to the fires and other weather events, where we need to think about it, but we haven’t made that decision yet.”

The idea of preemptive emergency days may be undecided, but Commons said that regardless, Californians must address the urgent issue of the numerous and destructive fires.

“I think we all have to keep in mind that there are people who are still suffering as we speak,” Commons said. “It’s a huge concern for all of us that live in California and how we are going to reckon with this new reality of fire danger in the fall.”

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