‘It was flying up and down the mountain’: Truck driver recalls riding through West Coast wildfires

WSAV NOW

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — “It’s been a surreal year,” Savannah-born truck driver, NormAngelo Leach, told WSAV NOW.

Between driving through the country’s largest COVID-19 hot spot of New York City in March and viewing the ongoing West Coast wildfires with his own eyes, the 21-year trucker says the unique experiences have changed his perspective on life.

“It just really increases your awareness of everything and raises your whole train of thought about what you value the most in time and people you care about,” the North Carolina resident, who spent most of his 45 years living in Savannah, shared.

“You never know when any of these situations could come about,” he said. “Never.”

On Monday, Leach and his 18-year-old son, Justin, returned home after a four-day work trip out West, where destructive wildfires have so far ravaged over five million acres of land.

The deadly blazes have claimed at least 27 lives, the New York Times reported.

The pair traveled through Oregon, Washington and California on their approximately 4,000-mile journey.

It’s like you’re at a cookout and you decide to stand over the grill, and you wouldn’t want to stay there, but you don’t have a real choice.”

NormAngelo Leach, truck driver

Leach said he had heard about the wildfires before beginning the trip but wasn’t exactly sure where they were burning.

He tells WSAV NOW that they first encountered the fires coming out of Oregon and heading into Northern California.

“We were riding down the highway and we thought it was just getting eerily cloudy, so we kept driving,” Leach recalled during a phone interview. “I was like, ‘is that a cloud or is that something different?’ and [my son] said, ‘I don’t know; it might be a factory,’ and we started to smell smoke.”

As they looked ahead, they saw the highway cut off by a wall of smoke as the wildfires burned to the left of them. 

“We got into the thick of it,” Leach said. “There were emergency response vehicles in it and they were like, ‘okay, we’re rerouting everybody,’ because we can’t go this particular way.”

As they continued on their detoured route, the father and son saw “a lot more fire.”

“It was flying up and down the mountain, the hillside; it was terrible,” Leach said.

Throughout their journey, Leach and his son recorded short videos of what they experienced. In one clip, fire can be seen ripping through the forest to the left of them as their truck rode by.

In another video, Leach recorded the clearly visible sphere of orange morning sun through the thick smoke just outside of San Francisco.

“The smoke here is so dense that you can look at the sun directly this time of day, and there are no issues,” Leach said in the Facebook video.

He says it was raining ash. 

“If you’re out actually doing things in it, you’d notice you’ll look at your phone and it has a layer of ash on it, and on your skin, there’s ash on it,” Leach said.

“Visibility was probably a quarter of a mile most of the time, and it’s just a lot, I don’t know how they do it,” he added, referring to the people living in the troubled region.

Some of the California residents, he says, came out of their homes and rode out onto their land on ATVs to view the fires themselves.

“To stand there and actually watch a wall of fire and smoke head toward everything you own, and you have to think about the fact that within another day or so, everything you own can be burned to the ground, I can’t even imagine how that must feel,” Leach said.

Their COVID-19 facial protection came in handy for helping to prevent breathing in the ash and smoke amid the “horrible” air quality.

“It’s like you’re at a cookout and you decide to stand over the grill, and you wouldn’t want to stay there, but you don’t have a real choice,” Leach said. “I got a few headaches there.”

In spite of the frightening wildfires he and Justin witnessed, Leach, who has been to 49 states, says there was much natural beauty to be seen on their journey, as well.

He shared a stunning video of Oregon’s Crater Lake to his Facebook followers, writing, “My first time here, and it doesn’t disappoint.”

Looking back at the “incredible” sights he has seen over the past year, Leach encourages people to count their blessings.

“I think at the end of the day, humanity will always win, we’re going to be fine and things will be good again,” he shared. “We’ve got to hold on and ride out the storms.”

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