The Politics of Disaster Seminar Visits the Butte Fire Disaster Area

by Abigail Eldridge ’17

“Shock and fear are no doubt the first stages. Then disbelief. That is different from shock in the sense that shock is the total unable to process the situation. Disbelief is trying to come to grips with the fact that it really did happen, it’s not a dream.” – Darcy Lambert

Butte1On September 9, 2015, a power line failure resulted in a massive fire that would destroy 475 residences and eventually burn over 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties. The rapid pace of the Butte Fire resulted in a quick evacuation for many and left little time for collecting valuables. Local residents continue to suffer a lasting emotional and financial toll as they work to recover from this disaster. Students from April Smock’s Politics of Disaster seminar, joined by Kathleen Huntington and Jim Sternberg, traveled to Calaveras County in November to gain first-hand experience studying the impact disasters have on impacted communities. The class participated in a field study of the area, touring the site of the fire, interviewing victims and helping the family of Kent and Darcy Lambert with their recovery efforts.

The class was welcomed to the area by the Lamberts who led them on a tour of the fire damage and to the site of their destroyed homestead. After hearing about the experience from the Lamberts, we spent the day laying straw down on a hillside spanning their property to prevent the erosion expected from the upcoming rainy season.  When asked about her experience, Nia Warren ’16 described the site:  “It felt like I was in a picture I would find on Google images. I could turn one way and see a flourishing garden and trees, and look in the opposite direction and see someone’s home completely destroyed. It was humbling to know that this could have happened to me or one of my family members. When you have a chance to see things first hand, you feel even more responsible for doing whatever you can to make a positive impact on victims’ lives.”

The experience brought a new perspective to the Athenian students. Instead of just reading about a disaster, the trip gave us the opportunity to get a closer look at the true impact of a disaster. We were also able to develop a stronger sense of empathy and understanding about the hardship victims experience in a tragedy.  When asked about her new understanding of how the victims feel in these disasters, Nia said, “It helped me to understand the struggle that it is to really move from a disaster. They can emotionally recover and still have to rebuild their homes, they can rebuild their homes but still never overcome the emotional trauma. Everyone heals in different ways, but regardless of how someone copes, life has to keep going.” By volunteering to work on the property, we felt we were able to give back in a way we had not anticipated.

In an interview conducted by Will McCurdy ’17, Redden Thompson ’16, and Natalie Knowles ‘16, Kent Lambert talked about the lasting effects of the fire and how his family is dealing with the tragedy and its aftermath.  He discussed how a community deals with this type of tragedy: “For the larger community, everyone’s got a different situation.  There’s quite a few people that I’m aware of that are not going to rebuild or they’re still trying to decide. For us there was a period we had to think about it but in short order decided this is what we’re going to do. Even though the landscape is going to change so drastically and that’s what brought us to that place, we’re going to do what we can to help change it to something different but in some ways better if we can, than it was before. For other people it’s too hard or too emotional, some people can’t even go back to their properties, it’s just too difficult.”

Butte3After the field trip, students in the class wrote journal reflections about their experience.  In his reflection, Will McCurdy wrote about what impacted him most: “Something I contemplated was how even other people’s possessions can have sentimental value and memories for us. I thought about all the times my family has gone over to our neighbor’s house and hung out and how I’ve grown up not just in my house, but in my neighborhood. Not only do you lose these places that hold so many memories, but like Kent and Darcy both said, many of the people don’t come back either.”  He also mentioned that hearing the stories from Kent and Darcy hit him the hardest. They impacted him in a way that was unexpected and made him think about what it would be like if his own home was destroyed in a fire:  “I would say all these stories I heard were the most valuable part of the day for me because I was able to reflect and connect them to my own life and by doing so, I think I got a really good understanding of what the Lambert family is going through. Obviously, one person can never fully comprehend a situation unless they live it, but each story and experience you hear about can give a deeper and deeper understanding.” Visiting the site of the fire gave all of us students a clearer perspective on how victims of natural disasters are impacted and even brought on a new sense of empathy for future victims of disaster.

Darcy Lambert was very grateful for our help and hopes that we will continue to offer support to others who suffer a loss in a disaster: “There are so many aspects to disaster. I am thrilled that your students chose this class. They will be better citizens for thinking about the concept. No doubt they will be the leaders in the future having taken the time to understand this very difficult concept. May they never suffer personally, but be in a position to support others when the time arises,” Darcy said. This trip was an important learning opportunity to grow not only as intellectuals but as more empathetic human beings that truly understand what happens when people go through such tragic events.

After losing their family home to the Butte Fire, the Lambert family is still facing the repercussions that come with a disaster of such magnitude.  Darcy Lambert described the way she is dealing with the disaster, saying “What I do know is that what is working for me is the positive outlook. By staying positive, it allows others to approach the situation and be willing to help. If they were faced with depression or anger I suspect they would help once and be gone. It’s hard to help in those situations. Also we learned that we must accept help in the way the giver needs to give it. People want to help, our job is to accept it graciously.”

Students in the Politics of Disaster class are showcasing their Honors Projects based on natural and environmental disasters they studied in the Commons through the end of January.