I know what a wildfire looks like. I know how it smells, what color it lends to the sky. I know the burning sensation in the lungs when the air is so saturated with particles to render breathing impossible. I know what it tastes like. I am familiar with the agonizing decision, edging bets, on when to evacuate.
As a city girl, I had to acquire this strange knowledge when we moved to a semi-rural area, up a canyon, maybe a bit naively, without considering what living in a fire prone area might mean. But I immersed myself by joining a patrolling program, learning what kind of brush clearance is required, how embers travel, how fast a fire can move in high winds. I know all three of my escape routes like the back of my hand. I even drew up three lists: what to take in case of fire if I have 30 minutes, an hour or a few hours to prepare for evacuation.
You might think it’s a no brainer but your mind turns to fog as you field phone calls from neighbors exchanging information, maybe the Sheriff has come knocking on your door and you try to reason your panic away.
I know that there is a chance I might lose my house one day, maybe this week, maybe this month – it happens quickly, unannounced. In fact, my house is built on a piece of land that burnt a few years before construction began. As devastating as that might be, things are just things, houses can be rebuilt.
I have seen fires, close and far, up and down this state but what I have never seen is the unprecedented loss of life that took place over the course of a night in Northern California. Forty people are confirmed dead but more are still missing.
By looking at the photos of entire neighbourhoods flattened by the fire, I can guess the fire line was of enormous proportions: usually a fire will ravage a neighbourhood, gutting some houses but leaving others intact, depending on how the embers fly or how much dead vegetation is present. But in certain areas of Santa Rosa there is nothing left.
More troubling is the thought that people were asleep and, by the time they woke up, it was too late or, worse, they thought they could make it through: a house where a couple just moved in, a new truck a man didn’t want to leave behind but couldn’t find the keys for. Their possessions, as well as their lives, are now dead ashes.
Our houses, for most of us, represent our lives: they mirror who we are, what we do, what we value. We build them to protect our families, they are safe places where to nestle our feelings, where we nurse heartaches and grief; they treasure some of our happiest moments. I understand how hard it might be to let go. When asked to evacuate, I didn’t. I packed everything, closed all the windows, loaded the cars and walked every hour to the ridgeline to check on the advancing fire. All night long. I was lucky. I couldn’t fathom leaving my house, despite the acrid, unbreathable air, and a rain of ashes blanketing the roof, the patio, the driveway.
But it’s only possessions, I have to remind myself, for the next time I am placed in front of such a choice. What matters is the intangible.
Kay Wilson, an English woman and tour guide in Israel, was sitting in a park with a girlfriend several years ago when a man, wielding a machete, attacked them. Kay survived but her girlfriend didn’t. In what she thought were the last moments of her life, Kay writes that she thought:
“I was thinking of the people I loved. The grief that I would never see them again was so searing that it competed with the machete ripping my skin. Never again would I embrace them or even hear their voices. I had not made the most of every moment. It was too late to correct anything I had said, or left unsaid. Gone forever were the opportunities to correct the moments when I did not extend kindness, sacrifice my time and think of those I loved before myself. “
I must remember that, as gut wrenching as losing one’s house and every possession might be, in the end, it’s the memories that matter and not the physical walls were they took place.