Wildfires devastate BYU students’ homes in California

Matt Kastner
Matt Kastner’s family was evacuated Sunday night. Kastner is a BYU student studying information systems. At about 3 a.m. on Oct. 9, Kastner received the news that his home had become engulfed by the flames. (Matt Kastner)

Editor’s note: This story was last updated on Oct. 16 at 11 a.m.

At 11:35 p.m. on Oct. 8, Matt Kastner received a text from his mom.

“Big fire on the hill is there anything you want me to grab from the house?” the text said. 

Kastner’s parents and his younger brother evacuated from their home on Atlas Peak in Napa, California, around midnight on Oct. 8. Through the course of the night, Kastner received updates from his parents that his home had been engulfed in the flames from the Atlas fire.

“They had to drive through the fire to get out,” said Kastner, a BYU student studying information systems.

Updates weren’t very consistent as the fire caused a power outage across Napa, but Kastner was notified that his dad drove back up the 5 mile-long road to their house to find their home in flames at around 3 a.m. the next day, on Oct. 9.

Kastner said his family is lucky because they have fire insurance. Many of Kastner’s friends in the area have also lost their homes to the fire. (Matt Kastner)

“That’s where I grew up and now it’s all gone,” Kastner said.

California wildfires are dotting the state and wiping out everything in their path. So far, the death toll from the fires is at 40, and hundreds of people are missing.

An estimated 15 wildfires currently dot the state. The fires have wiped out about 217,000 acres and have caused about 75,000 California residents to evacuate their homes.

Taylor McLean, a senior studying public health at BYU, said both her parents have been affected by the fires.

McLean’s father marked himself safe on Facebook and McLean called her father to see what was happening.

“There’s like three fires surrounding our town right now,” McLean’s father said.

McLean’s mother evacuated on Oct. 9 and called McLean to ask what valuables to grab from the house. McLean said her mother grabbed her wedding dress, baby blankets, pictures and anything of sentimental value.

This aerial image shows a neighborhood that was destroyed by a wildfire in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Oct. 10. Newly homeless residents of California wine country took stock of their shattered lives Tuesday, a day after deadly wildfires destroyed homes and businesses. (Nick Giblin/DroneBase via AP)

The fire touched down in McLean’s neighborhood in Green Valley, California, on Oct. 10.

On Oct. 14, McLean’s family returned to their home since the firefighters contained the fire about a quarter mile away from their home.

Napa is currently in the recovery phase, according to McLean. There is still a lot of devastation in the area from the fires and the air quality continues to keep people indoors.

However, the fires are still only 50 percent contained, according to McLean, “so it’s not over yet.”

BYU alumna Ruth Clawson and her family also evacuated from their home in Green Valley, California on Oct. 9.

People who evacuated to other areas couldn’t even leave their houses due to the poor air quality, according to McLean.

“We were in our house until it was a mandatory evacuation,” Clawson said.

Grabbing important documents, their 72-hour kits, changes of clothes and emergency supplies, Clawson and her family drove away from their home, not knowing if it would be there when they returned.

“It was too overwhelming,” Clawson said.

Jeff Chiu
Plumes of smoke rise from a mountain behind a vineyard at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, Calif. on Oct. 10. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Planes have dropped fire retardant over and over again, according to Clawson. She said things are organized and people are doing the best they can, but the fire seems to be “beyond the scope of management.”

Clawson and her family were staying at a friend’s house. There were 11 people in the house and three families represented. In the evening of Oct. 14, Clawson and her family were able to return to their home. They hosted a family over the weekend and are trying to help others who weren’t as fortunate.

“We feel almost guilty since we are some of the few with such a safe, good outcome,” Clawson said.

There are firefighters and about 50 national guard troops on duty down her street, according to Clawson. She and others in her neighborhood are helping provide food for the firefighters and helping with their laundry.

“It feels good to serve,” Clawson said.

Many people are offering everything they can to help, McLean said.

As the fires continue to rage, power outages make it hard for BYU students to stay in contact with their families who are affected by the fires.

Rich Pedroncelli
Firefighter Nick Gonzalez-Pomo, of the San Rafael Fire Department, waters down hot spots on a garage on Oct. 10 in Napa, Calif. Wildfires whipped by powerful winds swept through the California wine country sending thousands fleeing as flames rages unchecked through high-end resorts, grocery stores and tree-lined neighborhoods.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

“It’s scary because there are times when I can’t get a hold of them because the cell towers are down in that area,” McLean said.

McLean said her mother has been such an example of strength through this whole experience.

“We’ll have our memories and we’ll have our family, and that’s what is important,” McLean said.

Clawson’s neighborhood is having a block dinner Oct. 18 to “debrief and rejoice” from the events of the fire. Below are screenshot pictures from Clawson with updates from the wildfires near her home.

For ways to help those affected by the California wildfires, click here.

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