California wildfires leave members of Lehigh community without homes

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Wildfires in Northern California have devastated communities in the region and irrevocably changed the day-to-day lives of residents.

The fires have damaged more than 245,000 acres of land spanning throughout Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano counties.

An updated statewide fire summary filed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on Oct. 19 reported that more than 10,000 firefighters have been working constantly to tame the burning flames. More than 15,000 people were evacuated from their homes. An estimated 6,900 structures were destroyed. Forty-two individuals lost their lives.

Firefighters are still working on extinguishing the fires, fighting winds ranging from 35 to 50 miles per hour.

Almost 3,000 miles away, some Lehigh community members are also reeling from the damage of the wildfires.

Before coming to Lehigh, AJ Diakon, ’20, lived in Napa Valley with her father. On Oct. 8, the California wildfires reached her neighborhood and destroyed her home. Diakon said she speaks to her father a few times a day to keep updated on the state of her home and community.

Diakon said her father and her neighbors saw the fire from afar at around 9 or 10 p.m. but did not worry about it approaching them because there was a fire station between the fire and the community. At midnight, however, the neighbors realized how much closer the fire was getting, so they started to evacuate the area.

“The firefighters don’t tell you when your house burns down because they’re busy fighting the next fire,” Daikon said, “so if you want to find out, you have to go back and go look at your house.”

Diakon’s father walked about five miles from where the road was blocked off to his street.

“He rounded the corner and saw that our entire street was completely gone,” Diakon said.

Xavi Lema, ‘19, and his family, who live in Sonoma, were also impacted by the fires. While Lema’s house still stands, his family’s vineyards were completely destroyed in the fire. The vineyards used to be a family-run business, but had turned into a hobby for the Lema family, until the fire ravaged the land.

“Vineyards are tough,” Lema said. “That whole area is going to go into a little bit of a recession with wine-making because you can insure the winery, like the building, but you can’t really insure vineyards.”

Lema said the fires are devastating to many businesses in wine country. He said it can cost up to about $300,000 per acre to replant, and it can take about 7 years to get a bottle out of the land.

Lema said he and his family are lucky their house is safe.

“I have a list of 50 people that I know whose houses are just gone,” he said.

Benjamin Miller, ’18, is from Southern California, so his home was not directly affected. However, for years Miller attended Camp Newman in Sonoma Valley.

“It’s weird to know that the camp that you went to for so long is gone, but also kind of the places around camp that we went to on our day off,” Miller said. “All of my friends from that time of my life are reaching out, so it’s been a very nostalgic time.”

Amy White, the associate director of media relations in the Office of Communication and Public Affairs, grew up in the unincorporated Sonoma County area. Until October, her mother still lived in her childhood home. But the fires reached her neighborhood and turned the house to ash.

White said she’s looked at satellite footage and photos her mother’s neighbors took. The house is completely gone, “just a pile of gray ash and rubble,” she said.

White said she thinks everything inside the home is also gone.

“As you can imagine, that’s lifetimes of family photos, memories, heirlooms, family treasures,” she said. “Everything.”

Like Miller, White said she is reconnecting with old friends and neighbors over this massive tragedy. Reconnecting allows them to bond and share memories from their childhoods.

“A lot of us felt really connected to our childhood homes, so we’re all going through this together,” White said.

Because California is about 3,000 miles away from Lehigh, those who have been affected have been leaning on the university community for support.

“In the end, you do realize what matters,” Diakon said. “And really the most incredible thing that I’ve experienced in the past week is how supportive everyone at this school is, my teachers especially. They were so understanding, which really made it easier to mourn what had happened.”

Support has been extended to students and faculty alike.

“Many of my colleagues going back years, from when I started working at Lehigh, got together and wrote me a really nice card and gave me a little gift,” White said. “It does mean a lot to me that Lehigh has offered me support.”

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