A team of San Francisco Chronicle reporters reconstruct the first nine hours of the wildfires that levelled swathes of Northern California over the past two weeks. Talking to dozens of residents, first responders, and experts, they drive home the speed and scale of the disaster — and the impossibility of effective evacuation and firefighting when that happens.
Firefighters estimate that at times, the flames raced 230 feet per second and, inconceivably, threw embers a full mile ahead of the fire front. It moved so fast that chickens, cats and other animals were charred where they stood, left standing like blackened statues.
The fires awed Bill Stewart, a UC Berkeley forestry professor.
“These fires are off the charts,” he said. “There just aren’t enough firefighters in the West to fight that much fire. … Those trees, on fire, were pure ember machines that really kicked things into a new level. We’ll be studying this for years to come.”
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This week, we’re sharing stories from Ronan Farrow, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, Vivian Ho, Christopher Goffard, Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Alex Pappademas.
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From the evening of October 9, 2014 to the early morning of October 10, 35-year-old Cecilia Lam called the police eight times to report that an ex-boyfriend named Cedric Young, Jr. was harassing her. Officers showed up at Lam’s apartment multiple times but ultimately were unable to stop Young from killing Lam and turning the gun on himself. Why? In the San Francisco Chronicle, Vivian Ho investigates what happened during the nine hours that led to Lam’s senseless death:
At 8:37 p.m., Cecilia made her first call to 911.
“My boyfriend and I, we’re pretty much fighting right now and I’m asking him to leave my home,” she told the dispatcher. “And he will not leave. … It’s starting to escalate.”
Young had been drinking all day, she said, then quickly added, “He’s actually leaving now.”
“Do you want me to send the police?” the dispatcher asked.
“No,” Cecilia responded. “I think we’re OK.”
But by 9:14, she was on the phone to 911 again, and then again at 9:33 p.m., describing an “escalating domestic violence issue.” Young was back and ringing the doorbell, over and over again.
“I’m getting more scared,” Cecilia said in the third call. “I don’t know if he’s going to break in.”
Ramirez dialed 911 around the same time. “I’m calling to straight up say this guy is insane and he’s trying to get inside,” he reported.
Dispatchers flagged the incident as a “418 DV,” a domestic violence dispute. As Lam made her third call to 911, Officers Adam Lobsinger and Chhungmeng Tov from Southern Station pulled up to the building. They began talking with Young, who had halted his frenzied attempts to get into the apartment.
Lobsinger would write in his report that Young seemed calm and “in good spirits.” Young told him “it was nothing more than couples arguing.”
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“We believe the harm has been irreparable and will already have ramifications for decades to come,” [Geoffrey] Shester said. “We’ve basically reduced the carrying capacity of the ecosystem to support the populations of other species that depend on sardines. The more fish we take, the more it is going to make that situation even worse.”
The collapse this year is the latest in a series of alarming die-offs, sicknesses and population declines in the ocean ecosystem along the West Coast. Anchovies, which thrive in cold water, have also declined over the past decade due largely to fluctuating ocean temperatures and a lack of zooplankton, their food of choice.
—Peter Fimrite writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in April, about the Pacific sardine’s population decline, and cancelling the West Coast commercial sardine season.
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