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Reflections on the California fires

Second-year medical student Orly Farber reflects on the wildfires that have burned through Northern and Southern California this month.

Last week, like so many California residents, I woke up to the smell of smoke. I scurried out of bed at 5:30 AM and checked the cooktop, the oven, and even opened my apartment’s front door. It wasn’t until I went to close a window, letting in a cold early-morning breeze, that I realized the source: Smoke was blowing through Palo Alto from 200 miles north.

The fire in Butte County, better known as the Camp Fire, has been burning in Northern California since the morning of November 8. Later that same day, the Hill and Woolsey Fires broke out in the southern part of the state. As of ten days into the Camp Fire, 77 people have been confirmed dead and nearly one thousand are missing.

I’m following the shifting numbers and reading updates from my family’s home in Maryland. For over a week before I left – and according to friends, still today – the air was visible as though a gray fog had descended and obscured the sun’s rays. An orange ball poked out of the blanket of smoke and, each day, it gradually rolled across the sky from morning till evening. When night fell, a dark curtain replaced the usually-vibrant California sunsets.

On Stanford’s campus, the smell of charred earth followed me and my classmates as we biked across the quads and sat in lecture halls. Some students wore masks covering half their faces, others took in gulps of polluted air and minimized their time outdoors. Second-year medical students remained focused on the week’s tasks. We did our shifts in the ER, went to class, and studied for exams. Before a test last Friday, one classmate, a California native remarked, “Smoke is a West Coast weather type, but this is something else.” My classmates with asthma incessantly coughed their way through the exam, and I thought of how weather can, at times, be more destructive than any disease.

Now on my Thanksgiving break, my first visit home in months, I’m feeling a mix of gratitude and guilt. I’m grateful to be breathing fresh autumn air and spending my favorite holiday with family and friends. But truth be told, I also feel like I abandoned my new community in a time of need. I wonder, if I had stayed, what would I have done to help? What kind of support can a second-year medical student offer on the ground? What about from 3,000 miles east?

I bring up the fires at Friendsgiving gatherings, attest to the poor air quality across dinner tables and at coffee shops. I tell my friends at home what’s going on and, from their responses, am reminded that the coasts of the country can feel worlds apart. I try, in the smallest way, to bring them a little closer.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I hope you can spend some time with the people you love and enjoy the holiday. But I also hope that you stay informed and, if possible, provide aid to those impacted by the fires. Please write to me if you have other ideas for ways to help – both from California, and from elsewhere. Here are just some of the organizations in need of assistance:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

Orly Farber, a second-year medical student, is from Washington, D.C. She graduated from UChicago in 2015 and spent the following two years in an allergy lab at the National Institutes of Health. While Orly’s heart remains in Chicago, her body is thrilled to be in the Bay Area! She loves running, hiking, rock climbing, baking bread, and tending to her plants — fully embracing the West Coast lifestyle.

Photo by Julie Greicius

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