Reporter’s Notebook: The Challenge of getting to the Northern California Fires

Reporter's Notebook

Photo: CGTN/May Lee

CGTN’s May Lee shares personal observations while covering the massive wildfires in California in this Reporter’s Notebook.

I’m not superstitious, but on this Friday the 13th, the day proved to be all that it’s supposed to be.

I needed to get up to Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Napa to cover the catastrophic fires that have been burning across huge areas for days. Getting there from Los Angeles would normally take no more than 2 hours by plane, but because of the tremendous amount of smoke that has been enveloping not just the North Bay, but also the San Francisco Bay Area, air traffic has been a mess. There have been delays and cancellations daily. So for 48 hours, I booked, cancelled and rebooked flights about 8 or 9 times.

I finally decided to fly into Oakland airport having been told that San Francisco International Airport had been hit much harder by the smoke. My troubles began immediately at Los Angeles International Airport, LAX, Friday morning. After struggling through long security lines, I realized there was a booking error and my morning flight to Oakland was actually a late night flight. I whipped my laptop open and began a frantic search for another flight. A small miracle…there was one ticket left on a late morning flight to Oakland on Southwest, but it was departing from a different terminal. That meant I had to fight through the LAX maze and, to my horror, go through security AGAIN. Amazingly, I made it to the gate with time to spare. Taking this later flight already put me behind schedule by about an hour, but I figured I could make up the time on the drive from Oakland to Santa Rosa. But that wasn’t meant to be. The captain announced that there was an issue with a cargo door and that it would “take some time” to fix. An hour later, we were finally in flight and just over an hour later, we were descending into the Bay Area blanketed with thick smoke. It looked like Los Angeles circa 1970s or Beijing circa 2017.

I quickly hopped in my rental car and headed up towards Santa Rosa. Everywhere I looked there was a heavy layer of smoke covering all the iconic Bay Area landmarks. Alcatraz was barely a shadow in the bay.

Photo: CGTN/ May Lee

Two hours later, I arrived first in Santa Rosa and met my cameraman, Joe Orlando. He had been covering the fires for a few days already so he took me on a tour of some of the hardest hit areas. One neighborhood was the perfect illustration of the unpredictability of fire behavior. In one area, homes were burned to the ground…completely annihilated. But right next door, a home stood unscathed. And just across the street, rows of homes were picture perfect. It was jaw dropping. I couldn’t believe the stark contrast within just a few feet. Fire has no mercy, but it can turn on a dime and spare property and lives so randomly.

 Left is destroyed home. Right is home completely in tact.  Photo: CGTN/May Lee

Across the street from devastation, homes are unscathed. (Photo: CGTN/May Lee)

On Friday evening, I went to a town hall in Sonoma where city officials and first responders spoke to residents about the latest developments. The school auditorium was overflowing with concerned locals who wanted updates about conditions as well as ask questions. But the most poignant moment for me is when a city official asked the audience how many people know of someone who had lost a home in the fires, and nearly every single person raised their hands. It was astounding and heartbreaking to see the impact the fires have had so far and I say “so far” because they are far from over and officials warn it could get worse before it gets better.

Sonoma town hall. (Photo: CGTN/May Lee)

This is already the most destructive and deadliest fire in California history. I fear what more may happen, but am preparing to convey the stories of strength, community, resilience and hope.

Masks needed in smoky conditions .(Photo: CGTN/May Lee)