What lies beneath the ashes of any wildfire-torn community? Stories. The stories of heirlooms destroyed. Families lost and displaced. The sadness and hopelessness we all would expect when everything is lost. When black soot is all you can see and smell, with the remnants of what once was a kitchen crumbling beneath your sneakers. What else lies beneath those ashes? Hope. Resilience. Community pride.
Over the course of the last year, many communities have been faced with the ashes and destruction left behind by savage wildfires. But, in the face of these adversities, communities have come together, rallying behind each other to overcome.
Fires burned nearly ten million acres across the United States in the most active fire season since 2015.1 What was different about the fires this year is the widespread impact and sheer number of fires, over 66,000 across the country1. In California alone, more than 1.2 million acres burned2—more than twice the number in 2016.3
While many across the country turned their eyes to hurricanes, these fires blazed across both residential neighborhoods and protected federal lands. Businesses, drivers of recovery and vital to communities, burned—taking with them jobs, opportunities, and products that communities need. Wildfires have no preference — they take what they want with reckless abandon.
With the strength of these fires, we awarded states 62 Fire Management Assistance Grants over the course of the year, which are designed to help supplement costs of manpower, equipment, overtime, and supplies like food and water for the teams on the front lines. These teams worked long hours, potentially even losing their own homes to the fires they were fighting. (These men and women have our undying gratitude for the work they do.)
Many of these fires were devastating, including the Thomas Fire in California, which burned over 280,000 acres of land across southern portions of the state.4
Weather conditions like heat, the strong Santa Ana winds, and a lack of significant rainfall over long periods of time can dry out the terrain, including trees, leaves, and grass, forming a perfect storm of conditions for a massive wildfire.
And as a Ventura County firefighter recounted to the Los Angeles Times, “We’ve been firefighters for decades and have never seen anything like this.”5
This year, in terms of wildfires, was incredibly difficult for first responders and most especially for those in the fires’ path. What is remarkable aside from all the damage, destruction, and devastation, is the support. Communities pulling together and helping each other. The generosity and kindness of strangers and volunteers giving countless hours to support communities that may or may not be their own.
And, most of all, the resilience of disaster survivors -- for them to be able to work together through some of their darkest days to rebuild and recover. To come back stronger than ever. That is the takeaway from this year -- the sheer determination and strength beneath the ashes.
- National Interagency Fire Center Fire Statistics Editor’s Note: The statistics used in this article were pulled on January 5, 2018. The current iteration of the site has been updated to reflect current “year to date” statistics. You can find a cached version of the site here.
- Cal Fire Data for 2017
- Cal Fire Data for 2016
- InciWeb Incident Summary page for the Thomas Fire
- Los Angeles Times: Firefighters have never seen a wildfire like this one