At 2 a.m. on the morning of October 9, I was awakened by a text message from my daughter with the frightening words, "We're evacuating." It would be a day of panic, disbelief and heartbreak as fires tore through Santa Rosa and other communities just north of San Francisco. My daughter's family joined the more than 100,000 people who were forced to flee their homes. By the time the fires were finally extinguished, authorities reported that 43 people had died and more than 8,900 structures burned in the most destructive fire on record in California history.
No one was untouched by this disaster. Although my daughter's family was spared, her best friend and neighbor's home was not. Even though Santa Rosa is the fifth largest city in the Bay Area, it remains a small town; everyone knew someone who lost their home.
In addition to dealing with the trauma associated with so much devastation, suffocating smoke from the fires blanketed the area for days. Air quality reached hazardous levels that were never seen before in a region which has received healthy air grades from the American Lung Association's "State of the Air" report for more than a decade.
Even after the fires were out, health risks remained for residents faced with mountains of burned debris and the fear of spreading ash into the air. Ash from burned buildings can contain even more harmful particles than wildfire smoke, including asbestos, arsenic, nickel, lead and other hazardous materials from burning structures.
These communities needed our help. Thanks to a generous donation from Dyson, the American Lung Association received 200 air purifiers to distribute to those in need of cleaner air. My colleagues and I reached out to schools, health clinics, fire departments, daycare centers and others closest to burned areas. Together with volunteer JoAnne Cohn, we delivered 65 air purifiers to Mark West Union School District in Santa Rosa, which had two schools that closed due to the smoke and devastation. The air purifiers were placed in classrooms near the fire zone to provide cleaner air for students and staff.
We also delivered 90 air purifiers to six different campuses of the Santa Rosa Community Health Clinic. The clinics were very busy following the wildfires and distributed the air purifiers to patients in need. Deliveries were also made to teachers through the Sonoma County Office of Education, as well as to Head Start families and individuals with lung disease impacted by the fires.
First responders also assisted in the distribution effort. We delivered 20 air purifiers to the Redwood Valley-Calpella Fire Department to provide to those in need in the Ukiah area of Mendocino County, which also experienced devastating loss of life and property.
When another massive fire broke out in Ventura County in December, Santa Rosa Community Health Clinic called us to ship 30 of their air purifiers to health clinics in burned areas there, paying it forward. We also sent thousands of masks to the American Red Cross and a local organization providing outreach to impacted residents in Ventura County.
The American Lung Association appreciates the support of Dyson and our volunteers who helped in an urgent time of need. And, we will continue to work in communities affected by wildfires to ensure that everyone has the ability to breathe clean air.