Fire and Fear - Facing Flames and Feeling Weak with Gratitude
I had a fear of fire when I was a child.
Watching the movie, "Bambi", might have kicked things off, but really, it was a fire in the woods near the house I grew up in that really terrified me. I was ten years old, living in a tar paper-covered garage (no money for siding) on our hillside 10-acre lot in rural Oregon. The property used to have an old sawmill. There was no trace of the mill itself, but there was still a huge pile, 100 feet in diameter, of slab wood that we gradually diminished by offering firewood for free to anyone with a pick-up truck (pretty much everyone). There was also a mountain of sawdust that was tinder-dry from sitting untouched (except for our races to the bottom of it) for decades. My stepfather was on a mission to get rid of all of it. He was a safety manager, and he knew that all that dry wood posed a serious fire risk.
So, when a fire along our gravel road lit up a neighbor's woods for hours one August night, I sat both mesmerized and stricken with fear as the flames licked at the trees on our side of the tattered flags that marked the property line. It was likely started by a careless smoker flicking his cigarette out the window as he entered the straight stretch over the road in front of our place. What if he (or she) had tossed it just a few yards later? It would have sparked our slab wood pile first, then exploded in the sawdust mountain, then raced right up the hill to our house (garage). My parents had everything packed in the car, and we drove down the driveway to watch the firetrucks from a safe distance. Later, when the fire chief told us it was safe to go home, he explained that our entire property would have been destroyed if the fire had been ignited just a few feet closer to us.
My knees buckled in relief and gratitude.
The next day, we went down the hill to examine the smoldering remains of the woods where we kids had often played. Our neighbor's house was untouched, but the barn had been destroyed, and the horses had broken free and disappeared uphill into the woods. My friend Andy, a boy of nine, was sobbing: Skeeter, his beloved shepherd mix, was also missing.
Those woods had been a fairyland to me. It's still the scene I return to when I want to relax or meditate. It was shady and damp, the soil as dark as Oreo crumbs, the path smelling of mystery and magic. There was a little stream dotted by moss-covered rocks and fallen logs. Dozens of beautiful white trilliums bloomed there each spring.
I cried when my stepfather told me they wouldn't come back the next year, that the remaining debris would be bulldozed. In fact, he was the one to advise our neighbor that having a firebreak along the road would be safer. For a year, I mourned the loss of that lush forest wonderland that had offered shade in the blistering heat of summer, brilliant maple leaves as big as my head in the fall, and those exquisite white trillium stars in the spring.
I drove by the old place decades years later, long after my parents had retired to the Oregon coast. Everything had changed. I don't know what happened to the firebreak plan, but the woods were back, thick with douglas firs and maples, salal and ferns. The creek was roaring (it was November), but had taken a wide arc rather than its former straight downhill path.
But as I marvelled at nature's ability to regenerate, I was stopped in my tracks when I gazed at the gigantic new home with turrets (turrets!) that replaced the modest double-wide trailer that had been our neighbors' home years before. When I asked the new owner if there had ever been any fires, he said it wasn't a risk. He had never known about the fire when he bought the place, as the trees had already been twenty years old by then.
Life moves on. Things change. Forests renew themselves. And people long to live near them.
I understand the lure of nature. I still miss those woods. These days, I live in a small apartment in a big city, and get my nature fix by strolling through the botanical gardens or public parks. It's not the same at all.
This week, I have been utterly heartbroken to read about the tragic fires in California. The loss is unimaginable. So many people died, so many animals were killed or displaced, so many homes and livelihoods destroyed.
I know that the survivors are suffering greatly, and that it will take a long time for them to recover. And my heart goes out to everyone who has been touched by these tragedies.
As you may know, a big percentage of our profits from the sales of our emergency kits goes to local groups offering disaster recovery and relief services in communities across the United States. Right now, I am committing to donating to groups in fire-affected communities in California that will be assisting in the long, hard process of supporting families by replacing clothing and household goods, and finding new housing and new jobs.
Those areas will never be the same. Can they be beautiful, safe places to live again? I don't know. As the incidence of record-breaking fires increases, many communities will be forced to re-evaluate their safety and protective measure.
Any time there is a disaster of any kind, we find ourselves wondering what we would have done in the same situation. Would we have evacuated early? Would we have brought our important documents and zip files of all our family photos? Would we have had supplies in our car to help protect us when we drove through a fire? Some of the survivors tell of having less than a minute to evacuate. One minute! What would we do in that situation? What would we grab? Where would we go?
There is no comfort in asking ourselves these questions, but if there is any tiny glimmer of good to come from this, it is the reminder to hold our loved ones close, and to do what we can to prepare to stay safe.
Take good care of yourself and those dear to you, my friend.
Love and safety,