Fires Ravage Southern California


A wall of smoke in Ninetynine Oaks, California.

Last week, Southern California saw some of its worst fires in decades, displacing more than half a million residents, evacuating over 350,000 homes and destroying over 2,000, and resulting in five deaths and over 140 injuries. Among those affected were the families of dozens of Harvard Law students, as well as many Southern California law firms and businesses that had been planning to interview law students during the week.Some students who had traveled to California for fly-out week were caught in the middle of the chaos.

“[My family’s] area was under mandatory evacuation starting Monday night and we were not permitted to return until Wednesday,” said Ying Huang, 2L.

“We were given plenty of notice and were able to pack up our important items. The fire burned to within a few miles of our house in Carmel Valley and on Tuesday it seemed that if the conditions persisted our neighborhood would burn. Fortunately, the Santa Anna winds changed direction just in time.”

Others kept in touch from afar with family members affected by the blazes. “My family was in one of the mandatory evacuation zones, and got one of those reverse 9-11 calls telling them to pack up and await instructions, and then another one telling them to leave,” said Trevor Austin, 3L, who was out of the country on vacation.

“They went to stay with friends elsewhere in the city, and got to go back the next day. The house was fine, but everything was covered in a layer of soot.”3L Maia Taussig’s family lives close to the coast in Southern California, and so escaped evacuation, but she remembers clearly when the 1993 Irvine wildfires caused her family to evacuate.

“Being evacuated is very surreal,” she said. Your neighborhood gets word that you have to be packed up and moved out within an hour or two. Suddenly all the people on your street are down in their garages and drvieways, packing their cars with photo albums and wedding dresses (even though they’ve been married for 20 years), running around looking for rope to tie antique furniture to their ski racks. You realize your entire life needs to fit in your car.”The fires also affected interviews and the normal operation of many employers.”All four of my interviews were canceled and the offices were officially shut down,” said Huang.

“I was afraid that I would have to do another fly out, but the recruiting directors got in contact with me Wednesday afternoon and I was able to reschedule all of my interviews into the last two days. Overall, it was a hectic and tiring week but worked out as best as could have been hoped for under the circumstances.”

3L Brendan Hickey’s interview with the Federal Defender of San Diego was postponed since the office and the local courts had to close. “Not a big deal for me,” said Hickey. “Mostly I’m just glad the fires didn’t spread to a lot of heavily populated areas. Much credit is due to the firefighters and other emergency response workers for handling things so well. What worries me is that the [Orange County] fires are believed to be arson. In the Southern California hills in October, a single book of matches can become a weapon of mass destruction.”

Even businesses that stayed open had to contend with smoke and poor air quality. At the Irvine office of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, employees were informed by email: “Due to the smell from smoke coming through the elevators into the fifth floor lobby area, we have made the decision to close the glass doors… We would also suggest that you walk around the office rather than through reception to keep the smoke from entering the rest of the space.”

Even those students who were not affected could not totally escape natural disasters. 3L Libin Zhang, whose parents no longer live in San Diego but own property there that was damaged by the fires, reported, “I was in Greece this past week and they had their own wildfire problems!”Assistant Dean of Career Services Mark Weber sent a school-wide email clarifying how students should handle fire-related disruptions in their interview schedules. “Law school policy normally provides that students should not interview during their scheduled class times,” read the email. “If necessary, rescheduling your interviews during class time because of these extraordinary circumstances would certainly be a permissible exception to the policy.”

The Office of Career Services also reminded students that the Dean of Students office is available as a resource for students facing any personal challenges related to the fires.

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