This story was produced in collaboration with High Country News.
When I visited Christina Gonzalez and her family in April, she sat slumped in her family’s worn black faux-leather couch, trying to recall which explosion had shaken her neighborhood the most. The seven decades they’ve lived in Wilmington, California, are marked by the dates of the high-octane industrial fires that have erupted at each of the five refineries that surround their home.
There were so many disasters, she and her husband, Paul, both 73, told me. Was it the one in ’84? Or maybe the one in ’92 or ’96? Each fire painted the sky in different shades of black and orange. Paul believes the biggest one might have been later — closer to ’01, maybe, or even 2007 or 2009. He shifted uncomfortably in their living room; a recent procedure on his hip still made sitting difficult. “When that refinery blew, there were black dots everywhere,” Christina said, her short dark red hair framing her face, which was marked by lines from the stress. “All over the cars, the house, our fruit trees and patio furniture.”
“It was raining oil,” she said. She retired soon after that.