As wildfires continue to ravage parts of northern California, evacuees have begun returning to recover whatever belongings they have left. For some, that may be only their mail.
A stirring video taken by a drone over a Santa Rosa neighborhood on Tuesday shows a lone U.S. Postal Service truck making its rounds past razed homes and burned-out vehicles. When it comes upon a mailbox that’s still standing, the postal worker stops and dispenses the mail.
Professional drone pilot and cinematographer Douglas Thron told HuffPost he was out filming the devastation in hopes of raising public awareness when he caught sight of the USPS driver, piquing his curiosity.
“At first, I thought he was taking pictures with his cell phone but then I saw that he was actually delivering mail,” he said on Thursday. “It was just so surreal looking, like he was the only form of normalcy in this whole aftermath, so it kind of stuck out.”
He uploaded the video to YouTube on Wednesday, and it became one of the site’s top trending videos. The video includes a link to the Santa Rosa Fire Department’s website, which lists volunteer and donation information.
On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited aircraft from flying over Santa Rosa “to provide a safe environment for fire fighting.” The ban lasts until November 10. Thron told HuffPost he is aware of the restriction, but flew his drone before it was issued.
Noemi Luna, the district manager for USPS San Francisco, confirmed the worker’s unusual mail route to Mercury News, saying the employee was fulfilling a request made by some of the evacuees.
“This is an example of the long standing relationship that has been established between our carriers and their customers based on trust,” she told Mercury News in a statement. “The carrier in question was honoring a request by a few customers who were being let back in the fire zone to retrieve personal items. A few customers asked the carrier to leave their mail if the mailbox was still standing because they could not get to the [mail distribution center] to retrieve it.”
The fact that some mailboxes were left standing at all could be a surprise to some people viewing Thron’s video. The majority of the footage resembles a war zone, with smoke continually rising from piles of ash and charred debris. There are some areas that appear completely unscathed, however.
“It was kind of like an all or nothing — either your house was left or it was gone,” Thron said of the fire’s unpredictable destruction.
Thron said he’s worked as a cinematographer since the early 90s, and has filmed “quite a few wildfires but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“You saw cars that had exploded and flipped over on its side and the fires are still going now,” he said.
Thron said the experience gave him “a whole different outlook on things” as the neighborhood seemed like it was in a safe location, with it located next to a major highway and a Hilton Hotel ― which was also destroyed.
“It’s like a regular mom and pop neighborhood,” he said. “I would probably not have evacuated, I would have been like, ‘whatever.’”
As he flew his drone over the smoldering wreckage, he said he spoke with some people on the ground who had returned to search for belongings. Two people, a father and daughter, were there looking for items belonging to the man’s late wife.
“He was looking for a safe deposit box that was under the house. But he said it was so hot it probably melted,” Thron said.
Thron said he showed the pair footage taken by his drone, allowing them to see the full magnitude of the devastation.
“I think him and his daughter were in shock,” he said.
This story has been updated to include the FAA’s no-fly restriction.