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Smoke Blankets Santa Barbara County, Not Everyone Can Evacuate


Here in Southern California, wildfires are still burning. The largest has blanketed much of Santa Barbara County with a smoky haze. Now, many residents fled these fires, others did not, in some cases fearing they might lose their jobs. NPR's Leila Fadel has the story of some of those who stayed behind.

LIZZIE RODRIGUEZ: Hey, Mister? Are you hungry? It's snack time.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Lizzie Rodriguez is rounding up kids to eat at a pop-up daycare center on the east side of Santa Barbara at La Casa de la Raza, a community center that serves the Latino population.

RODRIGUEZ: When the school's closed, the low-wage hourly workers see La Casa de la Raza as a community resource. So they call up here and they say, I have to go to work. I'm a gardener. I'm a housekeeper. I'm a cook. And I have nowhere to take my kids.

FADEL: So Rodriguez, a community organizer, helped create a temporary daycare here that opened its doors on Tuesday. There are volunteer therapists, dance teachers, yoga teachers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So first, we have to get back into our down dog. Do you guys remember your down dog?

FADEL: Santa Barbara is known for their rich and the famous - think Ellen and Oprah - but more than 15 percent of the county lives below the poverty line.

RODRIGUEZ: These are the parents who are keeping our community operating under this crisis, and they don't have anywhere to bring their kids.

FADEL: Nearby, kids play soccer in a taped-off area or throw bean bags into hula hoops. Rodriguez says everything from food to games was donated in a matter of 18 hours. A few miles away, Max Rorty is at work.

MAX RORTY: We're lucky to have generators here to back up this enormous refrigerator of vaccines. This is flu season, so we've got a lot of needs for vaccines. And the power has been intermittent this whole week. That is expected to continue.

FADEL: She's a behavioral health specialist at the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics that serve the uninsured or immigrants without documentation. Her friends have mostly fled the smoke, but she and her family are still in town because of her job.

RORTY: We are centered in the neighborhoods where people don't have medical care. So our patients are coming in with respiratory complaints. And I'm a psychotherapist, and my patients are coming in full of anxiety.

FADEL: So, she says, they're not going to leave. And most of the doctors and medical staff here made the same decision, some driving through the worst days of the fire to get to work or staying in nearby hotels because their homes are in the fire zone. At Rorty's house in southern Santa Barbara County, her wife, Kate Mcdonald, a history professor, watches their month-old son.

KATE MCDONALD: So this is Decker - little burpy.

FADEL: At first, other families stuck around, but when the fire got worse most, took the kids and fled the smoke. Staying has been anxiety-inducing. She lists the daily questions.

MCDONALD: If, you know, you're supposed to go to work. Are you supposed to leave town? Are you supposed to - are we going to catch on fire tomorrow? (Laughter).

FADEL: Their newborn sneezed three times today, Mcdonald says, so she worries. Their 2-year-old daughter, Jo, is going a bit stir-crazy.

MCDONALD: How do you tell a 2-year-old that you can't go outside because the air is toxic? I mean, it's been kind of a game of hey, we're going to have this new fun adventure now. And the subtext is apocalypse, but we don't say that (laughter).

FADEL: She says, in two years, they've lived through four fires here. I ask if she's thought about moving. She responds with a series of climate change disasters this year.

MCDONALD: We love it here. And at some level, it's like, where are you going to go? Puerto Rico doesn't have any power. Texas is underwater. You can't evacuate for the rest of your life. So we have to figure out how we're going to live here in this new world and this new normal.

FADEL: The new normal. Leila Fadel, NPR News.


Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.