- Wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres of land in Northern California since the start of the year.
- One volunteer, Dan Ryant, has been driving from neighborhood to neighborhood and livestreaming footage of burnt houses so evacuated residents can see if their houses survived the blazes.
- His footage is sometimes heartbreaking for survivors to see, but gives them “a jump-start on rebuilding and facing their future.”
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
Since January, California wildfires have already burned more than 3 million acres, an area about half the size of Hawaii.
Thousands of properties are in the paths of the fires, and with many residents having evacuated, they often must wait days or weeks to find out if their homes survived.
Enter Dan Ryant. For three years, the Northern California man has trekked through neighborhoods devastated by fires with camera in hand, streaming the wreckage live on Facebook to an audience hoping to see if their homes are still standing.
His footage is often the first glimpse people have into their neighborhood after a fire.
“Good morning, everybody. I’m broadcasting again from Berry Creek, California,” one recent livestream began, before turning to some bad news.
“Back behind where these cars are here, it looks like another structure — I don’t know if it’s all part of the same property or not — but that structure is also gone,” he said in the broadcast. “Sorry for your loss. I really wish I could have delivered better news to you.”
This year’s North Complex Fire in Butte County is the fifth California wildfire Ryant has documented since he began the effort in 2017. It’s a volunteer project Ryant carries out on his own time — he took a sabbatical from his job as a truck driver until the end of September to carry it out this year.
Ryant chooses which neighborhoods to drive through based on requests from friends and followers. Some will give him their address for updates on a specific house, which he’ll provide in a private call.
For some, Ryant’s videos are a confirmation of their greatest fears — losing their homes. But he said he wants to take away the stress of uncertainty any way he can.
“This woman the other day just started crying,” he said. “And I said, ‘I’m so sorry that I couldn’t give you better news.’ And she goes, ‘No,’ she goes, ‘You don’t know how much stress you just took off of me.'”
“The whole point of me being out here, she just validated it.”
Ryant funds his trips himself mostly, although sometimes he fundraises for expenses through GoFundMe. But he says he doesn’t want money from those who have lost everything in the fire.
“If they want to do something, then my name is Dan — they can plant some dandelions in their new home when they get it rebuilt as a remembrance,” he said.
Ryant has already been to Berry Creek nine times since the fire ripped through in early September. His first trip down was just days after residents evacuated. Ryant leaves his house in Red Bluff by 7 a.m. with a list of addresses he plans to visit, all requests that come through Facebook.
Some of the homes are inaccessible. Others might be difficult to pick out of a neighborhood where address markers are now gone. It can be dangerous work, too — Ryant sometimes films fires that are still active.
Even when he has bad news to deliver, there are silver linings. For example, one survivor was able to use his footage to validate an insurance claim.
“The insurance company is immediately giving her a check, and they were astounded that she already had the video footage, because nobody has it yet,” Ryant said. “And that’s kind of the secondary portion of this, is it gives them a jump-start on rebuilding and facing their future.”
The North Complex Fire has burned more than 300,000 acres, an area the size of Los Angeles, since it ignited in August. It’s now the fifth deadliest wildfire in state history, with a death count of 15, according to Cal Fire.
The state’s wildfires have become more frequent and more devastating in recent years, thanks in large part to climate change. The rising temperatures have helped dry out forests — making them more prone to fire.
Ryant’s videos can get hundreds of comments expressing appreciation and making requests to visit homes. Though he tries to accommodate, he has to keep a tight schedule. And sometimes he can’t keep up with demand, or the physical and emotional effort the job takes — “when you’re telling hundreds to thousands of people, ‘Hey, your house didn’t make it,'” he said.
“I’ve got to sometimes step back and remember, these guys were probably going through more stress than they’ve ever had to deal with before,” he said. “How do I feed my family? How do I clothe my kids? My car burnt up. How do I get to work? I just lost my dog. You know, all of those things that I’m not having to deal with.”