WALLINGFORD — Tony Zuppardi has kept in touch with his high school friends on a near daily basis since wildfires scorched thousands of homes and killed dozens in both southern and northern California.
The Amity-high school graduate is a volunteer firefighter at the North Farms firehouse. His classmate, Arielle Verinis of Woodbridge, moved to Malibu 11 years ago to become a professional singer. Last week, Verinis, her husband and their dogs were evacuated.
”Her whole neighborhood is burned down,” Zuppardi said. “Her house is fine. She is in a hotel now. Not only did the fire affect the home, it got into the underground utilities, the sewers. They have to start from scratch.”
Zuppardi’s other friends in the Los Angeles area are breathing smoke every day as firefighters continue to break down the Woolsey fire in the southern part of the state..
The number of people missing in California's wildfires has soared to more than 1,000, and the death toll has steadily risen.
Hundreds of others are living in tent cities with no idea when they'll be able to return home.
Zuppardi wants to join the firefighters battling the fires, but family responsibilities prevent him from volunteering. Fighting thick forest fires also requires a different skill set, he said.
“This is a whole different level than the scale that Connecticut firefighters see,” he said.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection runs the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew, in which state employees and private citizens, mostly members of local fire departments, are trained to fight wildfires.
“The primary purpose is to have these individuals ready and available to fight fires if needed here in Connecticut,” Helen Hochholzer, forest protection supervisor with the DEEP said in an e-mail. “These trained firefighters are also available to assist in wildfire response nationwide and we respond almost every year to incidents nationally, and occasionally internationally to Canada.”
This past year, the fire crew sent 29 individuals to respond to fires in Western states. In the national response system, states closest to the fire are called first, so Connecticut’s team doesn’t get called unless resources have been depleted nationwide or fire activity is widespread nationally, Hochholzer said.
Firefighters interested in the fire crew receive a four-day overnight training course that includes wildland fire fighting techniques, safety, fire behavior, personal gear, firefighting equipment, weather and fuel types. To go on assignment, a participant must be available for a span of 18 days with potentially little notice on mobilization, she said.
“In addition to providing much needed assistance, it is also a positive for Connecticut to send these firefighters out west to maintain firefighter qualifications and gain valuable training and experience that can be brought back to Connecticut, “ Hochholzer said.
Janice Kraft-Baraslou, a Wallingford resident, visited the San Francisco Bay area for a conference earlier this month. As she and a friend traveled north, they weren’t prepared for the smoke and the sight of people wearing masks. Their host, a school teacher, lived in Sebastopol, where the smoke was so bad school was canceled.
“Breathing in that air is dangerous,” Kraft-Baraslou said. “It makes it scarier.”
The American Red Cross is working with the thousands of displaced people from the two fires.
“Right now, the priority for the Red Cross is to have a safe place to stay,” said Stefanie Arcangelo, spokeswoman for the organization’s Connecticut chapter.
The chapter has sent volunteers to help care for, feed and shelter evacuees. Assistance is expected to last months, and more workers from Connecticut may arrive in the future.
“The Red Cross is also paying attention to what is going on with the weather and the progress of the fire,” said Arcangelo. “Over 7,000 homes were destroyed. We are finding those longer term solutions.”
The American Red Cross asks that people who want to give send cash donations. To make a donation, go to the Red Cross website at RedCross.org, or call 1-800-RedCross, or texting CaWildfires to 90999.