Trial by Fire: Wheaton Students and Alumni Reflect on the Loss and Lessons of a Devastating Fire Season

The wildfires that ravaged much of the West Coast in 2020 have had a lasting effect on both the environment and Wheaton alumni.

By Grace Kenyon | Staff Writer
February 4, 2021
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Smoke during Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado that burned from August 13-December 2, 2020. Photo: Grace Kenyon.

On Oct. 26, junior psychology major Katie Lee woke to find that a wildfire was descending on her home in Orange County, Calif. Lee, who has been studying remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, lives in the city of Irvine, home to about 300,000 residents. It was only 7 a.m. when she saw the rising sun filtered through a thick blanket of smoke. Streams of orange light slanted through her bedroom window. As she attempted to take an exam online, sirens and phone alerts rang through the air. The police told Lee’s family they had 15 minutes to throw food, clothes and a few valuables in the car and evacuate.

 

It was not the family’s first brush with wildfires. “There have definitely been a lot of fires around my area in SoCal,” Lee said, reflecting on the experience months later. “But it  was never to the point where the fire was a sidewalk away from touching my house.”

 

At first, Lee’s family took refuge in a local church where her mother serves as a pastor. The church opened their doors to anyone who needed a place to stay, but it soon became clear that the battle against the Silverado fire would not be a short one. The fire was barely contained and it was unclear when it would be safe to return to her house. All the family could do was pray. 

The Silverado Fire burning in an Irvine neighborhood in Orange County, CA. Photo: Katie Lee.

Soon the Lee family realized they needed a more permanent place to stay, so they moved in with Katie’s grandparents, who live about an hour from Irvine. Lee spent the next few weeks attempting to continue classes at Wheaton in a crowded house with painfully slow WiFi.

 

“My mind definitely was not in my head during the time of the fire, and it was hard to focus on any study,” she said. “It definitely was a struggle to get work done.” Yet her schoolwork was the least of her worries. She was constantly aware of the fact that, despite their best efforts, firefighters were concerned that the houses in her neighborhood were on the verge of being engulfed by flames.

 

“My family and I, we were just in this state of not knowing what to do and in this state of panic and anxiety, not knowing if we were going to lose everything or what was going to happen.”

 

Lee was not the only Wheatie who dealt with last fall’s wildfires, which engulfed millions of acres across the West Coast. Alumni Aaron Lenhardt ‘20 and Micaela Braddi ‘19 were among those affected both personally and professionally.

The morning following an unusually severe wind storm, Lenhardt woke up unsuspectingly in the city of Hubbard, located an hour’s drive south of Portland, Ore. in the Willamette Valley. Outside his window, the sky was dark red. It was raining ash. The wind had caused a few tame fires in Oregon to burn out of control practically overnight. Lenhardt was forced to leave his home, not by an evacuation mandate, but simply because the toxic air was giving him headaches and he was struggling to breathe. His headaches subsided after about two weeks, but the damage sustained by the forests and nearby communities continues to linger. 

 

“It’s going to take a while before they have everything rebuilt and before the forests start re-growing,” Lenhardt said, sadly. “The whole town pretty much got wiped off the face of the earth.”

 

South of Oregon, near Sacramento, Calif., where fires burned over 300,000 acres and killed at least 16 people, Micaela Braddi was working for the Butte County Air Quality Management District when the fires erupted. As fires raged across the state throughout September and October, she found herself on call for family, friends, and strangers who wanted to know how to keep themselves safe from smoke inhalation. 

Flying through the Cascade Range near Lyons, OR, with devastation from the early September 100-year wind storm. Photo: Aaron Lenhardt.

“We work so hard to keep the air clean, of course,” Braddi said, “but once it’s polluted we can’t do anything besides advise people on how they can protect themselves from wildfire smoke or other air pollutants.”

 

Braddi said that her biggest concern going forward is the irreparable impact of fires on communities and their contribution to climate change which, in turn, makes the fires more severe.

 

“We’re enjoying [the mild winter weather] so much, but we fear that the fire season may be even worse this year because of this really dry winter and perhaps a really long and hot spring and summer.” For those who passed through the flames this year, literally and figuratively, this is a sobering, new reality.

The cinnabar red skies the morning following the 100-year wind storm in Hubbard, OR. Photo: Aaron Lenhardt.

After spending about a month at her grandparent’s house, Lee’s family was cleared to return to their neighborhood. They didn’t know what they would find or even if their house remained standing. Lee’s old high school, which neighbors her property, had burned to the ground. There were burnt bushes all around the neighborhood, yet, miraculously, the houses were untouched.

 

“I feel like God’s angels were surrounding my entire neighborhood, because no houses were touched or burned,” Lee says. The community put together care baskets for firefighters, wrote thank-you notes, and offered meals on-the-house at local restaurants. 

 

They were safe, but many people had not been so lucky. The neighborhood on the other side of the hill had lost several houses, and two firefighters were hospitalized with third-degree burns.

 

Lee, who plans to continue studying remotely this semester, realizes how this experience has changed her. She says she learned the powerful lesson that while God gives good gifts, he can take everything away just as quickly. She experienced extreme anxiety and fear, but says she learned the power of prayer to see her family through. 

 

“I definitely realized that things of this world are very temporary, and you can’t cling onto things here because they can be gone in an instant. I was certain that I was going to lose my house and everything in it, and I had to prepare myself to be okay with that.”

Wheaton College, IL

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