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October 23, 2007. AmeriCares Emergency Response Manager Jonathan Hodgdon arrived in San Diego California at 5:45 p.m. The following are his first impressions:
I flew into San Diego yesterday; the scene outside of the aircraft was something I will not soon forget. As the aircraft approached from the east, passengers observed dark smog below, enveloping the entire valley from the ocean to the mountains. As we descended lower into the haze, day turned into night in seconds, and fires were visible all around us—on the hillsides, around the lakes and in the city’s northern and southeastern suburbs. As I emerged from the airport, the poor air quality and acrid smell in the air were noticeable immediately. “Smells like a burned skunk”, I thought, and “what have I gotten myself into?” were the next thoughts that popped into my head. Tom Turley, an AmeriCares relief worker arrived at 9PM to help me assess the situation on the ground.
At 1:30 AM I woke myself up coughing with a burning sensation in the back of my throat and tightness in my upper chest. I drank a bottle of water to compensate for the dry air. The health issues associated with wildfires and firestorms include myocardial infarctions due to high levels of physical exertion, heart attacks which are common among firefighters and those with underlying cardiovascular conditions, thermal injuries, heat stress, heatstroke and corneal abrasions. It is apparent that there is nowhere to hide here from the terrible air. Tom and I could drive for hours and still be in the thick of it.
All of the schools, libraries, DMV offices and parks in San Diego are closed this week and postal services as well as public utilities are experiencing disruptions. In San Diego County alone (six other counties are also affected), more than 700 homes have been lost and 513,000 residents evacuated from affected areas. Evacuation centers are appealing for cots, diapers, air mattresses, bottled water, Gatorade, coffee and non-perishable foods. But what the people here need more than anything else is clean air and peace of mind. Stress levels are very high. Our hotel in Chula Vista is uncomfortably close to one of the many wildfires that are only 10% contained—this one is called the Harris Fire. Watching families having breakfast, I wonder if they realize the danger that they are in, not so much from the fires but from the smoke. Most of the evacuees interviewed on television are talking about their homes and property rather than personal health concerns.
Today, we are meeting with our local partners to discuss how AmeriCares can best respond—what are the essential needs of the affected communities. We will then head out to some of the evacuation centers. I’ve been through all types of disasters and the most challenging ones to deal with are the ones where the emergency is still unfolding and there is no clear safety zone to which one can retreat, short of flying out of the disaster zone.