Zealand loses family tradition to Santa Rosa fire

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December is the time of year that Juliana v. US plaintiff Zealand Bell’s family usually makes the trip from Oregon down to California to visit family. While Zealand’s mom is Jewish and he just celebrated his bar mitzvah last June, Zealand’s fondest memories of spending time with his dad’s side of the family are the Christmases spent in Santa Rosa.

Zealand with his extended family, including grandma Judy who stands behind him, in her Journey's End Mobile Park home on Christmas 2014.

Zealand with his extended family, including grandma Judy who stands behind him, in her Journey's End Mobile Park home on Christmas 2014.

Traditionally, they would all gather at his grandma Judy’s home in Journey’s End Mobile Park in Santa Rosa for the holiday. Zealand’s family usually stayed at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel -- across the street from Journey’s End, which was tucked into a corner between Route 101 and Kaiser Hospital. The mobile park had 160 units. “It sounds big but when you’re there, it doesn’t seem big,” Zealand recalls. “It took up just one little square block.”

At these holiday gatherings, Zealand remembers presents “all over the place” and the small mobile home crowded and lively with his whole immediate family, his grandma, his two aunts and their kids and grandkids. This year, after wildfires struck Northern California in October, the mobile park and adjacent hotel are nothing but an unrecognizable expanse of ashes, and the Bells will spend their holiday time together helping Judy acquire new furniture and move into an apartment provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The cozy memories of the Bells coming together at Journey’s End will now always remain just that -- memories. Zealand has lost a cornerstone of his childhood and the backdrop of his connection to half of his family.

Climate change plays a decisive role in the worsening wildfires we have seen in recent years, including those currently ravaging Southern California. Climate scientists have long known that increasing temperatures would increase drought conditions and the combination of drier and hotter weather would mean more frequent and severe wildfires. The increasing heat of the summer months literally bake whatever remains of winter rains out of the landscape, making it dry and flammable. The part of California where Judy lives has been in a five-year drought.

Zealand was aware that there were fires in the Santa Rosa area but didn’t dream his grandma would be impacted by anything more than the smoke, something that Zealand is all too familiar with after the rampant wildfire season in Oregon this past summer. When his dad told him that the mobile park where his grandma lived had burned, Zealand wasn’t able to process what that meant right away. It wasn’t until he saw photos in the news that he was able to fully appreciate the scope of destruction.

Zealand recognized this photo of Journey's End Mobile Home Park on the October 13, 2017 front page of the New York Times and understood how severe the damage had been to his grandma Judy's home.

Zealand recognized this photo of Journey's End Mobile Home Park on the October 13, 2017 front page of the New York Times and understood how severe the damage had been to his grandma Judy's home.

“Oh my god,” he remembers thinking, dumbfounded. “Everything is gone.”

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He had stood right where the fire was. Looking at the photos, he remembered the rows of small mobile homes that made up the community. He remembered other kids visiting their families for the winter holidays, biking around the mobile park streets on scooters. All he could think about was what Journey’s End looked like “when it was alive.”

Zealand is haunted by the fear and chaos his grandma must have experienced while evacuating in the middle of the night.

Judy was one of the first people at the mobile park to realize that they were in the fire’s path. Her granddaughter called after midnight to make sure she knew the fire was close. Judy went outside and saw that the DeTurk Round Barn -- a Santa Rosa landmark about 3 miles south of the mobile park -- was up in flames. “You could see the sparks coming through the air,” Judy recalls. “The transformers were popping.” She knew that she had to get out.

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Many of the mobile park’s residents were asleep at that hour, so Judy and a few others ran up and down the rows of houses pounding on their neighbors’ doors to wake them up and tell them to evacuate. One of Judy’s neighbors suffers from Alzheimer's and wouldn’t respond to Judy’s frantic knocking. Judy feared for her life. Fortunately another resident had a key to the home and they were able to get the woman and her animals out safely.

“It’s hard to think about her knocking on the doors and being scared,” Zealand says.

On October 20, 2017, Journey’s End residents were allowed back onto the property for the first time since the fire. For most, this meant sifting through indiscernible piles of ashes that used to be their homes, searching for anything salvageable. Everyone had to wear masks due to the toxic fumes that remained in the air from the wide array of materials that burned in the fire and are hazardous to breathe.

Judy was able to go back inside her mobile home and some Our Children’s Trust staff were able to go with her. She doesn’t own the land that her mobile home is on -- only the home itself. Although her home is one of a handful that are still standing in the park, after the toxicity of the smoke that engulfed it, she may never be able to live there again.

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Zealand's grandma Judy takes in the destruction of what used to be her neighborhood.

Zealand's grandma Judy takes in the destruction of what used to be her neighborhood.

Since that day, the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the area off limits due to the toxicity and for at least a year. Judy does not have access to her home or to any of the things inside. The toxicity is so extreme that it’s likely that they have been lost forever.

Zealand is a plaintiff in the Juliana v. US lawsuit against the U.S. government because he has already experienced real harms and threats to his personal security due to climate change. Unfortunately, the Santa Rosa fire was yet another climate harm to impact his family. Zealand knows the impact of climate change is not a thing of the future; it poses real and present dangers.

“It’s more than just the future,” he says. “It’s also now. There’s great effect happening right now. The actual safety of my grandma -- my family -- was threatened.”

Caitlin Howard