WHEN RAJEE Gandhi and Subuadeep Guia fled the deadly wildfires of Southern California this week, they took off together.
Gandhi and Guia and a dozen of their fellow India-born engineers from the Sony electronics plant in San Diego were among the nearly 6,00,000 people who moved out of the way of the series of wildfires.
“During the worst of it, all you can think of is to get away from the flames and the smoke,” said Guia, 31, adding, “Then, after a few days, you miss the food and you start to worry.” “We engineers liked to play basketball after work and hang out together. The bonds we formed during good times stood us in good stead. Colleagues turned friends, faced the worst firestorm in Californian history together,” said Gandhi.
Gandhi, with his family and friends, went to one of the 45 evacuation centres scattered throughout the county. The blaze that engulfed miles of habitat spread fast as winds of nearly 100 miles per hour whipped the flames across the hills and canyons of the drought-parched suburbs.
More than 1,250 homes have been gutted by the fire, which is still raging out of control. The worst damage was sustained in the suburban communities of Rancho Bernardo and Poway — homes to scores of Indian families who work in the high-technology business hub and attend highly ranked schools in the area north of downtown San Diego.
Kanta Kerai, who runs an Indian supermarket and restaurant nearby, said that many of her customers lost everything in the fires. “One woman lost her wedding ring in the fire. How is she going to find it in all that ash,” Kerai asked.
To help the local Indian community over the trauma, Kerai served free meals for two days at her Ker Little India. Customers have started looking for snacks, breads and sweets — comfort food to help ease anxiety, she said.
Hema Srinivasan and her family were forced to leave their home early during the firestorm and took refuge with a friend in Rancho Bernardo before they had to finally settle down at her dental office. When she finally returned home later this week, all that she had lost in the blaze were two trees. Two of her neighbors, however, lost their homes. “It scared me to my wits end to think how close I was to death.”
For Triveni Sheshadri, a journalist, the warning came from her daughter in Boston instead of the high-tech warning system that was programmed to warn residents of the fire-affected areas. Soon after Sheshadri heard from her daughter, she moved with her family to a hotel for a few days to wait out the firestorm. “My daughter was more anxious than we were because she was so helpless.”
As the fires continue to devastate the county, Sheshadri said it brought cheer to her to hear from so many people from all over the world — from England, India and even Alaska — checking to see if all was well with her.
(Lisa Petrillo is a reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune. She wrote exclusively for the Hindustan Times.)