One by one, the names were called, amid a backdrop of noise and confusion Monday afternoon in the Sylmar High School gymnasium, where survivors sought shelter following four weekend wildfires, which blackened more than 42,000 acres in southwestern California. It was a seemingly endless roster, tinged with both hope and despair as families waited to learn which van would take them on a 10-minute tour of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Los Angeles County — the white vans, for residents whose homes were left standing; or the black vans, for those who had lost everything. The black vans stayed busy.
Contreras hadn’t gotten the phone call from her supervisor yet, but she didn’t care. She looked out the window again. Television reports indicated her area was out of danger, and though many roads were closed, she could make it to San Fernando High School, one of four shelters opened by the American Red Cross. Frantically, she ticked items from her list one by one. Play-Doh. Check. Coloring books. Check. Watercolors. Check. Puzzles. Check. For the hundredth time, she was grateful she always kept the blue suitcase packed with her Kit of Comfort. It made it easier to get to disaster scenes quickly.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?
If you weren’t looking for Panola, you’d never find it. It’s like a thousand other small towns across the South – an accidental detour on the way to somewhere else. Seventeen miles from a Snickers bar or a Coca-Cola, Panola is beyond rural – it’s practically forgotten. Things might still be that way if it hadn’t been for the church fires – 10 in eight days last month across five different Alabama counties. Three Birmingham college students were arrested in connection with nine of the fires last Wednesday, but healing will take a long time in Panola, where Galilee Baptist Church was one of the last to burn, completely destroyed on Feb. 7.