Fires, smoke disrupt Halloween fun for many California kids
Berkeley, Calif. – For tens of thousands of children in California, the biggest monsters this Halloween are wildfires that have thrown trick-or-treating into disarray.
Nancy Metzger-Carter and her family have been in a San Francisco hotel since Saturday when a blaze in Sonoma County wine country forced them to evacuate their home in the small community of Graton.
Every day, her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son worriedly asked how they would still have Halloween because they left their costumes behind.
“We were like, ‘No matter what, you’re gonna have a Halloween. We’re gonna figure it out,’” Metzger-Carter said Wednesday.
Her son, who was going to be a ninja, settled for a SWAT officer costume they found at Target. Her daughter and her 10-year-old friend, whose family also evacuated, went to the Love on Haight boutique in the city’s famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to put together hippie costumes.
“The people were so sweet to them. They found pants that will fit them. They were helping to cut them,” Metzger-Carter said.
Many families who live in and around wine country north of San Francisco have no neighborhood to bring their kids to collect candy because they’re coming home to destruction, are still under evacuation orders or facing lingering power outages meant to prevent electrical equipment from starting fires in windy weather.
And kids on the other side of San Francisco Bay, southeast of the Sonoma County blaze, are seeing Halloween plans literally go up in smoke.
“Today at work, our lunch conversation was: ‘What are you going to do for Halloween if the air is not good?” said Hillary Sardinas, a field biologist in the Bay Area city of Albany. “It’s obviously not the biggest issue with the fires. You care about people being safe. But yeah, it’s potentially a lot of disappointed kids.”
Some parents like Sardinas thought about throwing a Halloween party instead. She and her husband had planned to host their daughters’ preschool classmates with candy, a pinata and a movie if trick-or-treating wasn’t an option. But after looking at the air quality Thursday, Sardinas said they would go out without masks.
Smoke and poor air quality became too much for Traci Moren, an acupuncturist who lives in Berkeley. She decided to take her sons, ages 9 and 4, out of school and stay with a friend in Santa Barbara.
Last year, they left town around Thanksgiving because of a wildfire. This time, they left Wednesday to make it in time for trick-or-treating, which is a “much bigger deal” to her oldest son.
“He was pretty upset when I told him we might not be able to trick-or-treat. His best friend already left town,” Moren said. “I just want to make sure there’s a way to make it happen.”
Moren’s older son goes to a school with an annual Halloween parade. Around 400 costumed students walk around the playground and then around the block, Washington Elementary Principal Katia Hazen said. It ends with a dance party on the playground.
The school considered having the parade through the hallways and stairs because of smoke but decided to go ahead with the usual outdoor plans Thursday.
The so-called Kincade Fire in Sonoma County has burned 120 square miles (310 square kilometers), destroyed more than 140 homes and forced more than 180,000 people to evacuate at its height. It’s more than halfway contained, and most people have returned home. Despite widespread blackouts by the state’s largest utility, electrical equipment that wasn’t shut off may have ignited the flames last week.
Strong winds also have whipped up wildfires in Southern California, destroying houses, forcing people to flee and leading utilities to cut power.
In Sonoma, which was hit hard by the fire, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley’s main location will be open until 5 p.m. on Halloween, even to kids who aren’t members. Clubhouse director Jonathan Antimo is expecting more than 100 children.
The clubhouse will host a mini Halloween carnival with a costume contest, a doughnut-eating contest, “spooky tag” and movies. They also will let kids trick-or-treat room to room.
“We’re going to try to keep the Halloween spirit alive and keep the kids happy and the fire out of their minds,” Antimo said.
Planning the festivities has kept his staff from feeling stuck at home and stressing about the wildfire.
“Our team is just really excited to help. They all jumped at the offer to come in and work,” Antimo said.
Parents can go to Airnow.gov to look up the air quality index by city, said Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. If it’s above the yellow level of “moderate,” which is still considered acceptable, children should stay indoors.
“If you still want to trick-or-treat, perhaps alternatives such as trick-or-treating at an enclosed apartment complex or senior facility or mall should be considered,” Prunicki said by email.
Even children wearing masks shouldn’t stay outside for too long, she added.
Metzger-Carter said she’s grateful her children will still have a Halloween, even if it’s trick-or-treating away from home.
“We’re so fortunate to be able to be at a hotel and to be able to purchase a costume,” said Metzger-Carter, whose family planned to stay one more night at the San Francisco hotel though evacuation orders were lifted. “Honestly, these disasters hit vulnerable populations so much more than people like us who can choose to stay at a hotel another night.”