A deadly fungal disease on the rise in the West has experts worried

At 5 a.m. 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.

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