At 5 am on December 4, 2017, Jesse Merrick got a text from his roommate. “Hoping your family is OK,” he remembers reading when he woke up. The Thomas Fire had just broken out in Southern California and was quickly growing into a nearly 300,000-acre behemoth. Jesse frantically tried to reach his relatives in Ventura. When he finally got hold of his mom, she was broken. “She answers the phone and she’s crying hysterically,” Jesse said. “She says, ‘It’s gone. It’s all gone.’”
The Merricks’ ranch-style home, with most of Jesse’s childhood stuff in it, burned down that day. A week after the fire, he flew out to help his mom salvage what was left. They spent days sifting through the rubble. Jesse, a former college football player, took on the strenuous task of sorting through the wreckage in the deep, charcoaled hull of their basement. The whole family wore masks to protect their lungs from the dust and gloves to shield their hands from sharp objects. But it wasn’t protection enough from the danger lurking in the dirt.
Three weeks later, Jesse had to fly back home to Alabama, where he was working as a sportscaster. He was in charge of covering the annual Sugar Bowl college football game in New Orleans—a big opportunity. But when he got there, something didn’t feel right. “I felt like I had gotten hit by a bus,” he said. Jesse chalked it up to jet lag and pushed through with the broadcast. But his symptoms didn’t subside. Instead, they got much, much worse. Within a couple of days, he was coughing and running a low-grade fever. A rash had appeared on his upper torso. “I remember being miserable,” he said. “I wasn’t sleeping.” Once the rash started moving up his neck, about four days after he first started feeling sick, Jesse knew he had to get to an urgent care clinic.