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Alumni brave the blazes: California wildfires destroy homes, pollute

Alumni/ae across California were affected in 2018 by what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has called the most destructive wildfire season in the state’s recorded history. Cal Fire suspects both fires were created due to malfunctioning electrical equipment.

 Since moving to San Francisco in 2015 to work at Stripe, an online payments processing company, Ella Grimshaw ’11 has felt the impact of two wildfires, the Sonoma County wildfires that clouded the city in late 2017 and the Camp Fire. Of the two, she said, this year’s Camp Fire had a much stronger effect on the city.

“The Camp Fire was honestly terrifying,” Ms. Grimshaw said. “Visibility became really poor, no one was out on the streets, and everyone was in masks, even indoors. Almost everyone I knew evacuated the city. It felt like an apocalypse.”

Ms. Grimshaw said she first felt the fire’s effects during an office party on November 15, the day San Francisco’s air quality ranked among the worst in the world, according to The Bay Area Air Quality Management District. She said the air in the building itself became cloudy, and she had to strain her eyes just to see across the floor. For several days afterward, she suffered from a raw throat and bloodshot eyes, she added.

“The fires are talked about a little less now,” she said, “but it’s marked a painful reality that there will be more wildfires in California and therefore more consequence for years to come.” 

Actor and producer Addie Doyle ’09, who lives in West Hollywood, 10 miles from the Woolsey Fire, said that when she first moved to California from Massachusetts in 2014, she felt unaccustomed to the threat of wildfires. The 2017 Bel-Air Fire just two miles from her house, however, caused her to panic, as it forced her to remain at home, where she feared debris landing on her roof.

“Bel-Air really put fires into perspective,” she said, recalling frightening stories of people staying in their houses while fires surrounded them. “I’m now hyper-aware of how real they are.”

Although the Woolsey Fire only affected Ms. Doyle through worsened air quality and traffic, she said she was taken aback upon speaking with a stranger who called himself a Malibu refugee.

“I never thought I’d hear it,” she said. “Malibu is a really privileged area, but now there’s a big influx of people coming from there to Los Angeles as refugees. We all know someone who has lost a home, lost a business or job due to this tragedy.”

Rob Warner ’06, also an actor living in West Hollywood, said the Woolsey Fire affected him most on November 10, the day of Malibu’s evacuation. He remembered the air being heavy with smoke and falling ash, preventing him from performing in an outdoor show scheduled that day. Aware of the fire’s fortunately minimal impact on him, Mr. Warner said, he has actively supported local relief with donations to firefighters and animal shelters.

“There is definitely work to be done,” he said. “Most of these fires are human made, so being able to boost methods of control and education, I think, are key.”

He said California is far from preventing future fires, however.

“I think fires are unfortunately part of the climate here,” he said. “In states like California, they’ll just continue to be an ongoing threat.”



Even with most of the fires contained, many people are still without homes and in need of funds to restore lost items and cover expenses like healthcare and transportation, according to the American Red Cross. Below are five organizations accepting donations.

1. American Red Cross has provided food, temporary shelter, and emotional support to victims of the fires. They’ve also created a database for people in the affected areas to register as “safe and well” and include a message that can be found by family and friends by searching the person’s name and address or phone number. You can donate $10 to their efforts by texting the code REDCROSS to 90999, or give any amount through their website,, or by calling 1- 800-RED CROSS.

2. California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund has provided more than $6 million since 2003 to fund wildfire relief efforts ranging from medical to home rebuilding. Donations can be made at

3. The Humane Society of Ventura County has evacuated and sheltered displaced animals from the Woolsey Fires. You can donate through their website,, or order needed items like crates and scrubs through their amazon wish list.

4. California Fire Foundation’s Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency (SAVE) program gives Mastercard gift cards in amounts ranging from $100 to $250 to fire departments throughout the state to help people affected by the fires with resources like food, clothing, and medicine. You can donate to the foundation at in the SAVE program section of the website.

5. United Way of Greater Los Angeles and United Way of Ventura County have partnered to create a relief fund for low-income individuals and families displaced by the Woolsey Fires. You can donate by texting 2018fires to 41444 or going to

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