Sunday, October 15, 2017

Love Is Thicker Than Smoke: A Personal Reflection on the NorCal Fires

When I see the footage of the devastation, it is unbearable. After only a few seconds, I turn away.

 A wildfire has obliterated whole sections of my city, turning them into desolate places of charred black. An elderly German friend who survived WWII says the area looks like it’s been bombed.

I have questioned my grief, wondering why it has hit me so hard. After all, I haven’t suffered any personal losses—my apartment and my partner’s house have been spared (so far). And I have never been crazy about Santa Rosa, having moved there mostly for financial reasons when my bohemian self couldn’t find an affordable rental in Bolinas. But still, over the last five years it has become my home. I have taken in its beauty from atop Taylor Mountain and come to rely on its subtle everyday communions: visits to the post office, the grocery store, the library; daily drives past neighborhoods and vineyards—a steady stream of ordinariness steeping my psyche in a sense of familiarity that I didn’t even realize I needed. Until now.

The loss is shocking. I feel it in my body as each image of place, imprinted on grey matter and tied to spirit, is burned from my being. With fires continuing to scorch Sonoma County, my shoulders are heavy and my stomach tight with sadness and fear. Worried about my safety and my asthmatic lungs, I flew to Los Angeles to stay with my partner’s family while he gathered our valuables and drove them here. Even though we are now out of harm’s way, I have been racked with stress, unable to comprehend the level of destruction of the land and its people.

Initially, the fire took everyone by surprise, with flames, fanned by high winds, devouring the landscape at hundreds of feet per minute. My boyfriend’s friends, a married couple in their 60s, found themselves fending off thick smoke and falling burning branches as they struggled to make it out of their driveway. They barely got out alive.

Others weren’t so lucky: My heart circles around the older couple who sought safety in a pool, only for the wife to die in her husband’s arms just as the last flames engulfing their house went out. The man who was caught off guard and perished while the rest of his family was sent to the burn unit at UCSF. The couple, 98 and 100, who left this world together as their home filled with fire.

How do we go on, when the lives we have built can be incinerated at any moment? When the walls that have contained us are turned into ash?

It’s no secret that impermanence is an uncompromising fact of life. I know I’m in good company when I say I have a difficult time embracing the fleeting nature of existence. At the risk of sounding like a flaky New Ager or an old hippie (I am neither), over the years there has been only one thing that has offered me any solace or sense of mattering as I ponder our existential abyss: love. It transcends earthly life, connecting this world to the next and us to each other. Love attaches me to place and community. And even though it opens me up to pain, it is also the key to developing the resilience necessary to heal.

Fortunately, Sonoma County has plenty of love to go around. There have been more than $2 million in donations made to the Redwood Credit Union, which has an excellent reputation for putting money directly into the hands of the people who need it. Volunteers are working at shelters, sorting through donations, organizing files, and connecting people with missing relatives. Firefighters are saving lives everyday, working round the clock in unimaginable conditions. And last, but not least, neighbors are offering each other simple comforts—an empathetic ear, words of hope, a gentle hand or embrace.

 At some point, I will have to leave my safe haven and face the decimation I cannot right now bear to see. But knowing that I will go back to such a compassionate community helps me feel less alone. Whether we suffered personal losses or not, this fire happened to all of us. And I know that it is our unity and collective strength that will see us through.

 For ways to help survivors, see