Before his three children left for summer camp, Michael Henderson gave them the talk. It was a new kind of talk. He told them to look at everything they owned and ask themselves:
What would they save from a fire?
Henderson’s family lives in Wawona, a small community located inside Yosemite National Park. They were one of many families in the region who were forced to flee their homes this summer in the wake of wildfires — in their case, the Washburn Fire in early July.
It was a tricky conversation. Henderson didn’t want to cause his kids any more panic than they already had experienced. While he says his 7-year-old likely doesn’t understand the full reality of what’s going on, he knows that his 16-year-old has been grappling with anxiety.
But he also needed them to understand the gravity of their situation and, consequently, re-adjust their idea of what is truly important to them.
“You get attached to things, but things are replaceable. And so, what's irreplaceable?” he asked. “I know you love this toy, but ‘This is art that you've created’ and, ‘You know, we can buy another toy.’”
Although the Washburn Fire is mostly contained at this point, the much-larger Oak Fire in Mariposa County, also near Yosemite’s southern gateway, has continued to fill the park with smoke after forcing thousands in the area to evacuate. It has also destroyed 106 homes so far, with another 641 structures threatened, down from more than 2,000 when the fire erupted.
All this keeps Henderson on edge. He says that he doesn’t want to get caught unprepared by an evacuation order again.
“For the Washburn Fire evacuation, I was just running around like a crazy person,” he said.
Closer to the Oak Fire is the community of Mariposa, about an hour’s drive from Wawona. An evacuation center for people fleeing the Oak Fire was set up in the area’s elementary school.
Miriam Allen spent a few nights at the center after leaving her home with her husband and 10-year-old granddaughter, Taylor. She’d seen fires in her area before, but this was the first time she had to evacuate.
Her granddaughter was terrified and begged her grandmother to leave once she saw the fire approaching.
“It was literally right in front of our house,” Taylor said. “I was shaking.”
By the time the evacuation order came, Allen says they had a couple hours to pack. She had an idea of what to do: Because of those previous fires in her area, she’d already written a list of everything she’d bring with her if her home was under threat.
“You kind of have to be prepared,” Allen said. “You need to make a list of what’s important that you want to take — your important papers, your insurance papers and things you can’t replace.”
For her, some of those irreplaceable items were pictures and a vase from Germany that her family has passed down for generations. But she says there’s still so much they left behind, and she’s eager to go back home as soon as the evacuation order lifts.
“If I can go home, I’ll go home,” Allen said.
The impacts of these wildfires lingers beyond the smoke and destruction. For business owners who rely on tourism for the bulk of their revenue, these fires arrived during what would usually be peak season.
Daria Ruark and her husband run the Mariposa Marketplace, a shop located just a couple blocks away from the evacuation center. Ever since the Oak Fire broke out and grew into the largest wildfire in California so far this year, locals and tourists who evacuated under short notice have come to the market for essentials.
“We’ve given toys for the kids, and T-shirts [and] socks for people and things like that, so they can wait to go back and get their belongings,” she said.
Ruark worries about what future summers of wildfires could mean for her business, and for everyone else’s.
“We’re here only because of Yosemite,” she said. “A town like this couldn’t survive being so isolated from everything else if it weren’t for the park and the people the park brings in.”
Henderson has similar concerns. When his family evacuated, he decided to stay behind in order to keep open his business in Wawona, the Pine Tree Market. For days, he similarly offered information to people calling in.
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He says the decision was made, in part, as an effort to help firefighters have access to fresh food and other necessities.
But even after the Washburn Fire’s threat waned, another problem arose: The past few weeks have meant almost a month of lost revenue. He says that he’s had to throw away rotting produce and other perishables.
“We pay our bills with the summer revenue,” he said. “And this is a month of it, let's call it, wiped out.”
The Washburn Fire is almost fully contained, and Wawona reopened for visitors last Thursday. However, the Oak Fire continues to flood the area with smoke and is approaching 20,000 acres burned.
It’s why Henderson’s son called him from summer camp — something that during a typical year, counselors would discourage.
“But they let him call home because he was worried about the Oak Fire,” he said.
For now, Henderson is still learning to tread the line between honesty and possibly inducing fear when talking to his kids.
“I don't want to tell them everything's great, everything's fine because that's not honest — and then you lose your credibility for other conversations,” he said. “But, you know, right now it's under control.”
It’s a balance he imagines many families like his own will have to strike in years to come.
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