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Still rebuilding their lives, wildfire victims prepare to relive the trauma

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Posted at 8:46 PM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 20:46:54-04

VACAVILLE, Calif. — Gripped by severe drought, regions across the Western U.S. are preparing for the chance of yet another devastating wildfire season.

“We’re doing it almost annually now, fighting large fires. That was not the case years ago,” said Don Ryan, Solano County Emergency Services Manager.

Located in northern California, Solano County was among those ravaged by the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex fires, the fourth-largest wildfire in the state's history.

Ryan says it was the biggest incident of his career.

“We have to be ready all over again," said Ryan. “Based on the National Weather Service, it’s the worst conditions most people have ever seen in their lifetime.”

In addition to the loss of life, more than 300 homes in the county were destroyed.

Vacaville resident Marc Weill purchased his Vacaville farm five years.

“The thought of losing it that quickly was terrifying. You can’t prepare for that," said Weill. "We all had our own version of PTSD.”

While his home was spared, the wildfire caused $150,000 in property damage.

He's now taking extra measures to prepare for future disasters, purchasing a 2,000-gallon water system, removing trees, and buying preventative fire suits.

"When you look at the hills, how dry they are, you know, this is tinder for a fire," said Weill.

He's among several residents who didn’t receive an evacuation warning or alert as the Hennessey Fire inched closer to homes.

“We couldn’t do anything with the animals," Weill said. "All we did was break down the stalls so that the horses and animals could run loose. And we just didn’t know what else to do.”

Will Carlson lives on the property and recalls the harrowing moments escaping the flames.

“Adrenaline through the roof, visibility is terrible because there's ash pouring down, pouring down, pouring down," said Carlson. "And there’s a noise to it – constant noise that brings you feelings of anxiety that it’s around the corner."

Months later, the anxiety hasn’t gone away.

According to the Office of Emergency Services, alerts went out to every resident signed up for the county's system, Alert Solano. The platform sends texts, calls, and emails until the user confirms they got the message.

“I can assure you, we’re going to call you or text you. But I can’t assure the end-user is going to get that message," said Ryan.

He says power shutoffs and weak cell phone service during emergencies can make these alerts less reliable.

As a backup measure, the Solano County Sheriff's Office has equipped each of its vehicles with hi-lo sirens. The state passed a law in 2020 allowing municipalities to use the distinctive alerts in emergency vehicles during evacuations.

“That’s an evacuation sign, not an evacuation warning," said Ryan. "You need to go."

He says more communities are now forming Fire Safe Councils, mobilizing residents to protect their homes, communities, and environments from catastrophic wildfire.

“There’s no magic agency in any part of the state that comes in and rakes your leaves and cleans your gutters. There's a lot of personal responsibility when you live in a fire-prone area," said Ryan. “This was a wake-up call to a lot of the residents – and that’s good.”