As San Diegans recover from the Valley Fire and deal with unhealthy air quality, their concerns evoke comparisons to what Australians dealt with during its historic summer of wildfires.
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Geographically, Australia’s climate and topography is comparable to that of California, specifically New South Wales and San Diego County. In February, I traveled south of Sydney after what Australians now refer to as the Black Summer.
“People have seen stuff that they shouldn’t see,” NWS Rural Fire Service volunteer firefighter Justin Morrison told me.
The deadly fires down under burned more than 46 million acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals.
“It was like a monster out there,” Batesman Bay resident Rhonda D’Amico said. “The climate of our town has changed dramatically.”
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During the first weekend of September in San Diego County, the Valley Fire tore through the Japatual Valley and scorched 17,665 acres.
“The sound was crazy -- think of it like waves crashing, but it was air crashing down the hill and heat, so much,” said east Jamul resident Ben Friesen.
Nearly 700 firefighters helped Cal Fire battle the blaze, which ended up destroying 30 homes. Some families lost their pets in the fire as well.
“Looking at the house, I’m thinking, Where are they?” said Lupe Hernandez through tears as she gazed at the rubble of what was once her home. She lost five cats to the Valley Fire.
Across the western states, people are growing accustomed to wildfires, with countries around the world dealing with similar danger.
On New Year's Eve 2019, the sky in New South Wales was orange as heavy winds pushed fires up and down the coast. Mark Berry and his wife, Sue, watched their home of 20-plus years burn down.
“It’s very emotional, and it’ll take some time for us both to adjust,” Berry told me during my visit to his home in Batesman Bay. “After the main fire front had gone through, we evacuated to our cars. When it was clear that we lost our home, we waited for the whole situation to settle down before we drove out.”
Berry, who owns the Bower Resort in Broulee, said wildfires, which are known as bushfires in Australia, were always in the back of his mind.
“It was always a possibility,” Berry said. “We’re restricted in how much hazard reduction we’re allowed to do, and we do as much as possible, but intensity of the fires is largely due to the amount of fuel on the ground and the wind speed and the humidity, so that combination was not in our favor.”
Berry said regular forest maintenance would have slowed the fire and ideally the intensity but questioned when there was time to accomplish that.
“Unfortunately, hazard-reduction-of-landscapes windows are getting smaller,” the NSW firefighter Morrison, who fought and survived the worst season in Australian history.
In both Australia and California, fire seasons have extended beyond their traditional months. Morrison said this is causing fire crews to lose valuable time when they would normally be back-burning.
“We got hazard-reduction burn, but can’t get it done because we got bad weather coming in, and we can’t control Mother Nature,” Morrision said.
“One of the images that I’ll always remember is a wallaby just before the fire front hit, and the wallaby was running helter-skelter in all directions, having no idea where to go and how to get out,” Berry said. “It must’ve been hundreds or thousands -- millions or more -- of those sort of experiences for animals.”
Berry’s back yard, which was once full with the sounds of wildlife, is now silent, a silence that seems deafening across California and in San Diego’s back yard as wildfire season continues.