Forty years of memories gone: Counting the cost as California’s fires rage

Wildfires are part of life in California. But nothing prepares you for losing everything.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” said Brian Branagan.

“It came over the top of these mountains and it just flowed like a river of fire down the hills and across the valley. I had about three hours to get everything that I could.”

A burnt out vehicle near Vacaville, California
Image:Vacaville is on the edge of one of the two biggest fires in the state’s history

As he showed me round the cinders of what was clearly a big family home, a swimming pool slide and garden chairs were almost the only recognisable reminders of a former life that went up in flames.

Forty years of memories gone in moments.

“Before I left I stood there and watched it burn and there was no fire department anywhere because they were apparently saving lives up the valley. It’s heartbreaking to see it – your whole life go up in flames.”

His home in Vacaville, Northern California, is on the edge of one of the two biggest fires in the state’s history.

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More than a million acres is on fire right now – an area five times the size of New York – and four times the size of all the wildfires that occurred in California in 2019.

A sign thanking first responders in Bucktown, California
Image:Residents are grateful for emergency services personnel in Bucktown but more are needed

Firefighters are having to prioritise which fires to fight, with state resources stretched to a capacity not seen before.

Help is being sent from other areas of the country but teams on their way from Texas, for example, face a two to three day journey by road before they arrive. There is not nearly enough manpower to combat the enormity of these fires.

David Janssen spoke to me from Mines Canyon Road where a fire more than 340,000 acres in size is only 10% under control.

“We’ve got a lot of out-of-state resources coming and they’re being split up among all the fires just to make sure we can get a handle on this. I’ll be probably be here for the next month.”

The fires were started by a rare lightning storm last weekend – thousands of strikes igniting more than 600 wildfires.

High winds and high temperatures have since created three infernos which surround San Francisco Bay.

One saving grace is much of the area on fire is rural grassland but one officer told me it has been “a white knuckle” couple of days.

Weather warnings and the unpredictable nature of the fires meant the flames could easily have spread to the more populated areas of Silicon Valley. That immediate threat appears to have passed for now but it could be weeks before these fires are brought anywhere near under control.

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California’s governor said the state hasn’t seen anything like this for many, many years.

Gavin Newsom also tweeted: “If you don’t believe in climate change come to California”.

The state recently experienced a possible world record for the hottest temperature on earth: Death Valley reached 54.4C (129.9F) degrees on 16 August – the highest air temperature on the planet for a century, if not ever.

The wildfire season has also been getting longer. It’s deeply unsettling for Californians to be hit by fires of this scale with the peak of fire season still to come in September and October.

While people like Brian return to pick up the pieces of their torched lives. There’s no evacuation plan from the worsening trend of wildfires in the state.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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