On my way home from my Thanksgiving trip to California last week, I was paying my bill for lunch at the Black Bear Diner in Willows when I heard the woman behind me tell someone she was heading back to Paradise, the town that had just suffered the worst wildfire in California history.
I had to ask. “How did you make out?”
“Oh, we lost everything,” she said.
What do you say to that? “I’m so sorry?” Do you just reach into your wallet and give them all of your cash? Do you buy them a stuffed bear from the gift shop for comfort? I think I just shook my head and said, “Oh wow.”
The woman and her husband looked like any other couple having lunch. Who would guess that whatever they had in their car was all they had left? No one. But there they were, heading home to a pile of ashes.
They just have each other, along with the friends and family who survived, standing here on planet Earth asking, “Now what?”
The Camp Fire, as it was called, killed 88 people, destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, most of them homes, and burned 153,336 acres.
I drove 1-5 to the Bay Area. The Camp Fire, still burning, was farther west, but its smoke spread throughout the state and was thick near that restaurant in Willows. I didn’t see the damage from that fire, but I did see some of the damage from the fires that happened earlier this year near Mt. Shasta and Redding. Like the Camp Fire, they burned thousands of acres. I passed miles of blackened ground and forests of burnt trees, their trunks black, their leaves and needles an odd shade of orange. It was frightening to see.
Fires have raged throughout California and done quite a number on its neighboring states, including Oregon. Look at this list of fires just this year, just from California.
At the same time the Camp Fire raged in Northern California, the Woolsey Fire tore through Southern California. Thank God the rain finally started, but the trouble is not over. A major blessing for the firefighters trying to contain the massive blazes, the storms also made recovery more difficult. Now, with nothing to hold the ground in place, people worry about flooding and mudslides.
I heard on 60 Minutes that the Camp Fire was growing at the rate of an acre a second. How do you prepare your home and possessions for that? You can’t. Some of the people who died were in their cars trying to get away. And some of them couldn’t stop to collect their pets. They just opened the doors and let them go.
For the most part, the newscasters have already moved on, but the damage remains. People who lived in Paradise are still seeking shelter, still waiting for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to bring trailers, still wondering how to remake their lives, which have been changed forever. They are mourning lost friends and family, lost pets and livestock, and a whole way of life. At this point, many don’t even have a mailing address.
As I drove home, I found myself looking at every house, every barn, every business that didn’t burn up, and feeling grateful. Eucalyptus trees, olive trees, pine trees. Mt. Shasta still standing. Klamath River still there. I returned to my dog and my home just as I left them. God, I’m so lucky.
My friends, while we make ourselves crazy buying gifts and doing all the things we tell ourselves are necessary this holiday season, let’s stop and think about how it might all disappear in a heartbeat.
Right now the sun has turned the tops of my trees golden against a blue sky. It looks safe, especially with all the moisture around here, but fire officials warn that fire could roar through here, too. Or we could have that tsunami we keep hearing about. Anything can happen at any time. Have you seen the pictures from the Alaska earthquake?
At Thanksgiving a year ago, my brother drove my dad and me around the areas that burned very close to his home near Yosemite. The fire came right to the gate of his housing development. When his family returned after evacuating for a week, his house was unscathed except for the smoke and the food that rotted in the refrigerator, but they have not forgotten the fear. This Thanksgiving, Mike showed me around his property. He has cut all the weeds to the ground and has been working his way through the trees, cutting away the low-hanging branches most likely to catch fire. He also showed where his creek flooded last winter, remaking the landscape. The rushing water left burnt logs from the fire on his land. He is trying to be ready when another fire comes.
The fire victims still need help. You can donate to the California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund or the American Red Cross.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed with everything there is to do, stop and look around. In the end, your only job is to stay alive, count your blessings, and be good to each other. The rest doesn’t matter that much.