+
upworthy

wildfires

The entire west coast of the United States is either on fire or covered in some measure of smoke and ash at the moment. We've seen photos of the midday sky the wrong color, from eery orange to apocalypse red. Entire towns have burned down, air quality indexes are hovering in the hazardous zone for millions, and our skilled, brave firefighters are overwhelmed.

Right now, the west needs all the help it can get.

Enter the volunteer firefighters of Guanajuato, Mexico who have arrived in Southern Oregon to help try to get the raging blazes under control. Known as the Heroic Fire Department of Guanajuato, the firefighters come from a city in central Mexico that has a 50-year "sister city" relationship with the Oregon city of Ashland. According to Portland Monthly, the five firefighters dispatched to Oregon have trained in the area before, which means they can jump right in.



The men include Captain Aldo Iván Ruiz, Captain Juan Armando Alvarez Villegas, Sargent Jorge Luis Anguiano Jasso, Sargent Luis Alfonso Campos Martínez and firefighter Miguel Ángel Hernández Lara. They arrived in Oregon Thursday, along with the city's mayor, Alejandro Navarro. The group has already gotten started and are "very moved by the terrible impact of the fire on families and their homes," Mayor Navarro wrote in a tweet, adding the hashtag #PrayForAshland.

Ashland is a picturesque town in Southern Oregon best known for its 85-year-old, Tony award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Alameda Fire that threatens the town and has forced evacuations is just one of many fires burning in Oregon. Today, the New York Times reported that 500,000 people are under evacuation orders in the state. That's 10% of Oregon's population. Other states have begun sending firefighters to help as well.

Five firefighters might not sound like a lot, but every set of skilled hands helps—especially individuals that are familiar with fighting fires in a specific area. While this story is a lovely example of support, it also highlights one of the many benefits of maintaining positive relations across borders and nurturing international friendship and cooperation.

When need arises, friends and allies step up to help. Thank you, Guanajuato, for sending help to a state that isn't even in your own country. Your generosity is definitely appreciated.

Driving back to her apartment in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last Monday afternoon, Rachel Gilliam weaved her way through smoke so thick she couldn't make out the mountains south of town.

Wildfires burn outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images.

"Everything had this brown and yellow haze to it, like there was a sepia filter over the world," Gilliam says.


When she arrived home, she called local police and emergency services, who told her that no evacuations were planned. Gilliam's wife, Jess, who had just finished her shift at the distillery where they both work, wasn't willing to wait for an update:

"We need to go," Jess said.

Gilliam grabbed the couple's dog, their two cats, some clothes, and a bag containing their birth certificates and marriage license and fled north to Jess' parents in Knoxville, where they watched the next part of the story unfold on television and through panicked calls and text messages from friends.

Gilliam's apartment complex, after the fires. Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

Wildfires blew into town, killing at least 14, injuring dozens, and destroying hundreds of homes, including the apartment complex where the couple had just moved two months prior.

"It was like a bad dream. It was completely heart-wrenching," Gilliam says.

Just a few miles away in Knoxville, Lacy Mellon and her husband Jonathan were following the same news reports with growing alarm.

A Tennessee native and real estate agent, Mellon regularly rents out two spare bedrooms in her home, and a bungalow listed on Airbnb as, "good for couples, solo adventurers, business travelers, families (w/ kids), big groups, & furry friends (pets)!"

With no guests on the horizon, she saw a better use for the empty space.

"This is my home and these are my people," Mellon says. Hoping to provide some relief to residents displaced by the fires, she sought out a friend who works at Sugarlands Distillery, the same Gatlinburg distillery that employs Rachel Gilliam and her wife.

"I immediately texted her and asked if she knew anyone directly needing housing and told her about our open home," Mellon explains. The friend referred her to Gilliam, who moved into Mellon's bungalow with her pets soon after.

Mellon's bungalow. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I have no words to describe how amazing it felt to have a safe place to live and for the animals to be at no charge," Gilliam says.

In the wake of the Gatlinburg fires, Airbnb has made it easier for its Tennessee hosts to offer their properties to evacuees free of charge.

According to a statement from the company's head of global disaster relief, the Disaster Response Tool will be available to hosts in the Knoxville and Gatlinburg areas through Dec. 13. Airbnb activated the function after Hurricane Matthew slammed the southeastern United States in October.

A review of the site on Monday morning showed dozens of listings available to evacuees in Knoxville, and several more in the surrounding areas.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs." — Lacy Mellon

Amanda Lane, a nursing student at University of Tennessee, saw donating her space as an alternative to giving money or purchasing other needed items for evacuees, which she can't afford.

"I personally feel like I've lost part of my 'home,' but I can't imagine actually losing my house as well," Lane, who grew up camping and hiking near Gatlinburg, says. "I am devastated watching the news, seeing all of the damage, and I really just wanted to be able to help out in anyway that I can."

Others, like Liz Candlish, who operates the Glenwood Inn in Knoxville with her husband J.R., praised the company for making it easy to assist with relief efforts. "I really feel for all the people who lost everything in the fires and since we have the space, would love to offer it to help out," she explains. "We can't imagine what it would be like to have our house burn down, especially right before Christmas."

This is just one of many ways locals are coming together to provide relief to evacuees from the fires.

Other Knoxville businesses have been active in assisting the recovery effort, including local food truck Oishii Knox, which has been giving away free meals to first responders and Liberty Ink Tattoo, which created a special design, with all proceeds going to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund.

Last week, singer Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood amusement park sits right outside Gatlinburg, announced a fund to provide residents who lost their homes, like Gilliam, $1,000 per month for six months to help them re-establish themselves.

Mellon, who manages a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts in the local area, praised the Knoxville community for rallying to support their neighbors.

For her part, she said she plans to take Gilliam out for dinner and host her until she gets back on her feet.

Lacy Mellon and husband Jonathan. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs."

Gilliam said she's enormously grateful to Mellon for putting her and Jess up and to Sugarlands Distillery for its support.

According to Gilliam, the company has pledged to help her and Jess find permanent housing in Gatlinburg. The couple is committed to returning, and Gilliam hopes that visitors will continue seek the city out — as she and Jess did many times early in their relationship, before they lived there — despite the tragedy.

Gilliam (R) and wife Jess (L). Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

From time to time, Gilliam regrets what was lost in the fire — her grandfather's handkerchiefs, a collection of Disney and Star Wars memorabilia, and hundreds of movies. Still, she's thankful for what wasn't.

"Things are just things, but we are safe, and that's what matters."

Residents of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which has been battered by deadly wildfires for days, are getting some much needed help from their most famous neighbor.

Dolly Parton. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

In a video and written statement released this week on her foundation's website, award-winning singer and actor Dolly Parton announced the creation of a fund to help the region rebuild, even as the fires continue to rage.


"I have always believed that charity begins at home," the singer said. "That’s why I’ve asked my Dollywood Companies — including the Dollywood Theme Park, and DreamMore Resort; my dinner theater attractions including Dixie Stampede and Lumberjack Adventure; and my Dollywood Foundation to help me establish the 'My People Fund.'"

The fund aims to provide residents who lost their homes to the fire $1,000 every month for six months, to help them rebuild.

The fires have already claimed seven lives, injured dozens, and damaged hundreds of buildings since they began spreading on Monday.

A birdcage sits among debris burned by the Gatlinburg wildfires. Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images.

Severe drought conditions in the region helped the flames, which appear to have been human caused, sweep into downtown Gatlinburg quickly and without warning.

Several people remain missing, giving families with elderly or less mobile relatives special cause for concern. In some cases, they've already had to confront the worst.

According to a WKRN report, victims of the blazes have included both locals and tourists — many of whom come to the area to visit its ski resorts and Parton's Dollywood amusement park.

Fire officials have yet to determine when displaced residents — that number over 10,000 — will be able to return to their homes.

Meanwhile, many locals have expressed frustration that their plight has been ignored or downplayed by the national press — as Jason Howard, a writer with family ties to the area, expressed in an opinion piece published yesterday in the New York Times.

"For most folks like me, this calamity is less about the lost jobs than about the lost memories of a place of great beauty, in a part of the country that sorely needed it," Howard wrote.

Parton's pledge not only stands to make the rebuilding process bearable for families who lost everything, it brings some much-needed attention to the area's struggle.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images.

Much like her earlier advocacy for LGBT rights, the singer is hoping to leverage her star power to do some good for the people she knows and loves best, calling the region, "the same mountains where I grew up and where my people call home."

Parton plans to release more details on her plan to aid the displaced families soon, according to her statement.

The people of East Tennessee have been asking America to listen for days.

Now, at last, they have a powerful voice on their side.

When I hear about a wildfire, I usually think it's out west somewhere.

The West has been hit by some incredibly devastating wildfires in the last several years, such as the one that hit Fort McMurray back in May or the Long Draw fire in Oregon back in 2012.

But the latest fires aren't just out west. They're in Alabama too.

A firetruck in Kimberly, Alabama on October 10th. Photo from AP Photo/Brynn Anderson.


Northern Alabama is going through an incredible drought and that's made it really easy for fires to start and spread. As of this writing, there have been over 700 wildfires in Alabama in the last 30 days alone.

"You know it's dry when a bush hog hitting a rock will start a fire," CBS quoted forestry commission member Coleen Vansant as saying, although most of the fires are actually caused by people, through things like arson or debris fires.

Residents and workers have been able to fight them back, but the state's not out of the woods yet. Fire crews from the southern part of the state are coming up north to help.

Zooming out, wildfires are on the increase across the United States.

A firefighter in California, 2016. Photo from Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Wildfires are four times as common now as they were in the 1970s and they burn six times as much land. This year alone, nearly 5 million acres of forests have burned in the West. That's about the size of New Jersey. Last year, it was 9 million acres.

Fire can be a natural part of an ecosystem and some amount of regular small burns are expected from stuff like lightning strikes. But this expansion is something else. What the heck is going on?

Part of the answer might be how our climate's changing.

I grew up in Texas and I can't remember a single Fourth of July that was wet enough for fireworks. Anyone who lives out West knows that heat, drought, and fire go hand in hand.

A firefighter in California. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.

So, what's causing all that aridity? A recent report pointed at our changing climate as a major part of the problem. There were other factors, like natural changes in the weather and other human activities, but about half of the increase in fire-ready conditions came from climate change.

"A lot of people are throwing around the words climate change and fire," said lead author John Abatzoglou in a press release. "We wanted to put some numbers on it."

Experts think the upward trend is likely to increase, and some scientists are predicting that droughts out west could last a lot longer — maybe for decades.

Addressing climate change could help head off this increase in wildfires — and give us other benefits too.

Natural disasters are expensive; in 2015, the federal government spent $2 billion on firefighting. And clean energy doesn't need to cost more than current power plants. In fact, at one point, Germany was actually paying consumers to use electricity.

The simplest and most effective thing we can all do is use our political power to vote, express that we need to address these changes. In the meantime, we can keep the people who are battling these fires in our thoughts.