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The Highway

Voices from the Future | Heikki Ketola

man watching fire

The Highway

The Event: On November 8, 2018, a small fire burned in the Santa Susana Mountains’ Woolsey Canyon, near Simi Valley California. But then the Santa Ana winds gusted, and the next day, the fire had crossed the Ventura Highway and was heading south toward Malibu. By the time it was done raging, the Woolsey Fire would burn 96,949 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, along with 1,643 structures. Nearly 300,000 people were evacuated, and for two weeks, they were told not to return to their homes. If their homes remained.

In Heikki Ketola’s mind, the memory of that November morning is still very vivid. Around 5 a.m., the phone rang in his Malibu home, disturbing his sleep. He answered and heard his neighbor, a retired fireman, on the line.

“The fire has expanded over the highway. It’s traveling over the treetops and it is coming our way,” Ketola recalls the neighbor saying. “The first thought that came to my mind was: ‘I am going to lose my house now.’”

“I have a small Prius and I couldn’t take a lot with me,” Ketola continues. “A cell phone, laptop. I took eight t-shirts, 30 disks of photographs, a passport. I thought I would have to spend some time at the beach before the fire calmed down.”

But as we now know, it didn’t. The Woolsey fire grew to one of the most devastating wildfires in California in history.

That November morning, Ketola was home alone. Divorced and with two grown sons, the 70-year-old retired businessman had only to worry about himself and a dear friend who also lives alone.

“I needed to go back, visit her house and make sure that she was doing okay,” he says. “The evacuation happened very quickly.”

Several hours later, he decided to drive back home to collect more of his things.

“This was around 7,” he says. “I still had this hope to find my house intact.”

But it was too late. “Our side of the mountain was fully on fire — nothing to be done,” he says. “I was just standing there watching my house burn down.”

In the meantime, the authorities had issued an evacuation order. It affected nearly 300,000 people. Ultimately, the homeowners association that governs Ketola’s neighborhood lost 37 of its 43 homes.

Since the Woolsey Fire, Ketola has lived in eight different places with friends for whom he’s tremendously grateful.

Two weeks after the devastating fire that destroyed 1,643 structures and killed three people, the evacuation ban was lifted. Ketola returned to a barren lot in Malibu. Today, he’s building a new house where the old one once stood.

“After all, I have lived in Malibu for 25 years, and there was a smaller fire in the ’90s, but that one passed my house,” he says. “You know that wildfires are a real risk here. I had a water tank with a pump behind my house, but I never filled it. I don’t know why. But I had very good insurance, which has kept me going.”

Moreover, Ketola has seen his community transformed and changed by the natural disaster it faced.

“When I was driving on the Pacific Coast Highway on an evacuation day with thousands of others, the 20-mile drive towards Santa Monica took four to five hours,” he says. “It was big chaos. I have to say that our authorities and the first responders — the police and the firemen — didn’t really know what to do. We did not get any updates on fire or evacuation on the city websites for days. It was not well organized at all.”

Ketola hopes that next time, God forbid, first responders and city officials are better equipped to manage these kinds of crises more efficiently, and he believes that’s largely up to politicians, both at the state and federal level. They should inform Americans truthfully about climate change, he adds.

“We don’t have a choice. Politicians don’t admit the rising temperatures, when so many others have agreed with the science,” he says. “I find it very double-faced behavior from the politicians — that they refuse to tell people that we are already in a shitty situation. Personally, I haven’t lost sleep over losing my house in the fire. I am ready to start all over again. I consider life, in general, an exciting adventure. On a larger scale, though, we really must wake up and pay attention to climate change and rising temperatures. The climate change is happening now. There is no question about it.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss