The power of recall
Early morning…white robe…tears…confusion.
I remember it with remarkable clarity: the horror when I saw the second Twin Tower collapse on live television. Was it a replay of the first? I also recall attending a press junket in New York when the final verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial was read. Silence…disbelief…bewilderment. The 1994 earthquake had me standing in my Los Angeles living room with the thought "at least I will die happy." The ease with which those memories can be called upon astounds me.
Not so with the Thomas fire. There is no single moment to archive, no single flash of consternation but many which collectively take on a myriad meanings.
December 2, 2017
When our family hosted a Christmas party in early December, we could not have foreseen the fury that mother nature would unleash a mere two days later, one that would cast an ashen shadow on the year’s most luminous of seasons. I don’t recall where I was when news about the Thomas fire broke, but three days after that initial ember dared extend its reach, Ventura had lost over four hundred structures and our own little piece of paradise found itself on the brink of terror.
Casting a pink hue in our sitting room, the obscenely alluring sunrise foretold the story of a battle lost, and that evening a breathtaking sunset (in the literal sense) prompted our family to flee the following day.
On the move
It was December seventh, three days after the fire enkindled. Hastily tossing what we could into a suitcase, we drove up to Pismo Beach where we were to meet up with other Santa Barbara families in search of clean air. The plan was to stay for a day or two until the fire and wind subsided. What were we thinking? At a mere 10% containment, 0% on the side menacing to creep into our city, we would not be returning anytime soon.
But surely one could dream of being home for Christmas, right?
On the drive up, one of my friends cautioned about a small fire she saw along the way. Minutes later another described in a panic that the small fire had presented itself on her path as an ominous cloud of smoke through which she and her three children had blindly driven. She warned me to "stay the %*$# away!" A third friend threw in the towel short of her destination in favor of a nearby theatre where she and her family were hoping to shed a few layers of frenzy. Determined to reach our hotel, we located an alternate route just before the 101 North was shut down.
Our first evacuation night marked the beginning of a sort of kinship that many of us don't get the opportunity to experience. Planning dinner with friends can sometimes be logistically challenging, but mother nature made her voice clear causing prior commitments to vanish like mist in the rain. With nerves frazzled, our family found comfort seated with friends and strangers who like us allowed their anxiety to morph into laughter and a good dose of much needed silliness.
While in Rome
Within a couple of days we were living like locals, eating lots of fried food, hanging out on the pier and trying our luck at bowling, but our voracious crew was ready for more and soon our teens, tots, dads, and a few moms were in the sand dunes kicking up dust without a care in the world.
I was having a tough time reconciling the loss of many with our own sense of joy. One death had been recorded and the parents of a dear friend of mine, who had already lost a house to fire, were now facing an apocalyptic return to their Ventura home, the only one standing within blocks of bereft chimneys and charred landscape completely leveled to the ground. Nighttime took its revenge with images of horror creeping into my mind like ants to their colony, flagrant thoughts intent on stripping me from the comfort and joy I had found in my Santa Barbara pack.
By our third day away from home the fire, which would eventually become the largest in our state's history, was threatening our own community despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters battling flames day and night. Merciless winds and severe dry weather conditions caused it to spread with such ferocity that our new refuge, 100 miles away, was completely veiled in smoke prompting us to pack up once again and seek asylum.
My husband rented a car and drove back home with our son to retrieve priceless objects like wedding albums and the tapestry from his childhood homes in Italy and Portugal. More importantly, he offered safe harbor to our housekeeper who had been suffering through the Santa Barbara smoke, as well as our dogs and leopard gecko who had stayed behind.
Imagine that you are somewhere between nine and eleven roaming free on a 500 acre playground peppered with wild turkeys, deer, and some of your favorite people skipping alongside you. Days brim with swimming, hide-and-seek, cart wheels, soccer, and pizza "almost" on demand ("almost" hinging upon on your parent's consent, but because they are both worried about the fire and happy to be with friends, they usually acquiesce.) Evenings bring movies, more pizza and an endless supply of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers to make s'mores over a roaring fire contained within the walls of a fire pit, the proper venue for a blaze to reside. Outings include visits to town for ice cream and cookies, a trip to one of the the world's largest aquariums, a day at the amusement park and a hike along an oceanside state reserve.
Welcome to Carmel Valley Ranch
There was much to embrace in that small piece of paradise we called home. Cognizant of the gift we had in one another, we fell into daily routines sharing everything from wine and stories to childcare and shoes. As we welcomed new members of our Santa Barbara kin to the dinner table and into our lives we were overcome by a sense of gratitude and joy.
Releasing the guilt
Photo credits: ig @ck_sb, unknown, David McFadden
Images like these began to circle around the net while my family and fellow evacuees embraced life at its fullest. The inequity of it all gnawed at my conscience, darkness again menacing to avenge. I couldn't stop thinking of all the people directly affected by the tragedy, the brave men and women on the front lines tirelessly fighting that monster and the hundreds who now found themselves in city shelters. One night while nearly a thousand firefighters surrounded the city to protect our homes, the same question lingered like a noontide shadow: Is it right to feel joy when your neighbor is in distress? But by then our own neighborhood was under mandatory evacuation. I didn't know if we or our fellow evacuees would have a home upon our return. What we did have was each other, and at that moment I realized that much like happiness, the vicissitudes of life are in a constant state of ebb and flow. And so it was that I sent my guilt packing on an adventure of its own while our traveling pack basked in the ephemeral joy of life's gift.
Leaving the flock.
There were only four days left before Santa was due to visit, we needed to make a dent in our Christmas shopping. The flock had been together for the better part of two weeks and while we didn't want to part ways, the stars had aligned themselves perfectly for a return to San Francisco, the city we once called home. Our son was already there, my husband was in the area working and the girls had hatched a plan to visit old classmates. To make things easier, our friends, who were visiting the Galapagos, offered us their Pacific Heights home. Many glassy eyes and embraces later, we bid farewell to our evacuee family in route to the Golden City. What ensued was a comedy of errors involving faulty keys, locksmiths, a malfunctioning thermostat, unexpected guests, and a very cold night.
The following morning it arrived. An early Christmas gift:
Pinch me, I'm dreaming.
Would we be home for Christmas? With three days left and toxic ashes waiting in ambush for our return, we needed to spawn a plan.
Plan B (or C or D...it's all a blur)
With the help of my husband and friends up north, I scheduled some fun for our trio in the city which included shopping (our eldest becoming my city elf) and ice skating at Union Square. The tapestry, albums, poodles and gecko found their way back into the car as we headed back home nonstop to tackle the mess, hoping to have things somewhat under control before Bernardo and the children arrived the following night.
Home at long last
Over the course of two days, our gardeners, housekeeper, handymen and I took on the aftermath with a vengeance. N95 masks became our new friends as we attacked the sea of ashes that had engulfed our home and garden. Our injured tapestry was repaired and mounted while kind neighbors brought packages they retrieved in our absence, and local businesses on the verge of collapse began to see the light.
Emotions were raw. Instinct took over one morning when I spotted a fire engine on the road ahead and floored the gas to reach it. I made eye contact with the driver and mouthed the words "thank you" prompting him to smile and mouth back "you're welcome". My eyes welled up with tears.
Like an astronaut coming home from the ISS, feelings of elation and gratitude ensued as I woke with my husband and children on Christmas morning in the house I wanted to hug. And as we gathered round the table that evening with friends who had braved the Santa Barbara smoke and a few of our beloved fellow evacuees, we took a moment to raise a glass to the fearless souls who had placed themselves in harms way to save the lives and homes of strangers.
Funny how in the midst of all the chaos we lamented the loss of the yuletide spirit.
And yet it never left.
May 2018 fill your lives with gratitude and silver linings.