It’s been ten years since the Black Forest Wildfire. I can hardly believe that much time has passed. We were fortunate to get out when we did, but sadly our house did not survive.
The memory of the wildfire still evokes responses from people who lived through it and those who weren’t impacted. The ones who watched from a distance are always curious about what it was like to have lost everything we owned in one hot, dry, windy afternoon. They want to know how much time we had to evacuate and how close our escape was to when the fire destroyed our home. They also want to know what I grabbed to take out of the house when we evacuated.
We had about an hour to get out and we took only what we could fit in the car: my computer, photo albums, some jewelry, important papers, a bag of Smurfs (long story), a few changes of clothes, makeup (a most essential item), the cats and their litter box. My son filled a duffel bag with his clothes and other stuff. We went to my parents house. I jokingly said to my folks as I wheeled my small suitcase into their kitchen, “Well, this could be the only thing I have left in this world.” Little did we know.
For those who also lost it all, there is a mutual understanding how life changed for us all, not only on the day of the “big event” but also in the years that followed. Most survivors can be matter-of-fact about it now, describing their loss with a minimum of drama, kind of like explaining they just got a hair cut.
I’ve learned a few things along the way that could apply to anyone:
1. People need to tell their stories. I realize now that anyone who has been impacted in any way by something traumatic feels the need to explain where they were or what they were doing at that time. Just because one person lost more than another doesn’t minimize the trauma they felt. There are no winners in a pain competition. Most want to share their experiences with others and it helps to listen so they can make sense of the event.
2. Almost everything can be replaced. The exceptions were the memorabilia — those items you held onto for sentimental reasons, like the kids’ cards, journals, diaries, items passed down through the family. Occasionally when someone mentions looking at their high school yearbook, I feel a twinge of loss. But I’m thankful we saved our photo albums. Otherwise it’s amazing how you can fill up a house again over the years.
3. People recover at different rates. Just because something was a slam dunk for one of us and now we’re onto the next phase of life, doesn’t mean it’s that easy for others. Drama-queens they’re not.
4. When there is a loss, you don’t get back to normal, at least not the “normal” you knew before the big event. Everything changes and that process continues like ripples spreading across the years. We don’t take as much for granted.
5. Decision fatigue is real. Stress builds up with the number of choices we feel compelled to make. And when you have to clear the property, file a claim (with that awful inventory) and build a new house, the decisions can be overwhelming. I learned that the more complicated we make our lives, the bigger the impact on our health so I strive to keep life simple now.
6. Information was crucial. We were hungry for updates, first on the status of our homes, then later, for how we could access resources. Information helped us stay organized, coordinate with others, rebuild our homes and juggle the competing demands of work and family.
7. Fear can crop up at unexpected times. It still comes up for me when I hear fire sirens, experience days of hot, dry, windy conditions or drive by acres of land that’s still unmitigated. Less so now than years earlier, it still brings back memories of what could have happened had we not evacuated in time.
8. People are kind, generous and supportive. Folks came together to help one another — they evacuated animals, donated household goods, gave gift cards and cash, opened their homes, provided rides, etc. Our optometrist wouldn’t charge us for eye exams, the Salvation Army gave out gift cards courtesy of anonymous donors, and our church, neighbors and numerous relatives were there for us in a variety of ways. It reinforced my belief that people are good.
Yes, ten years has flown by quickly. I’ll never forget the phrase our insurance agent repeated to help me determine what expenses I could claim. “If not for the fire,” I wouldn’t have as much patience as I have today. I have more compassion for people who have had traumatic experiences. And I know that if it were to happen again (which it could) we would make it through okay — and be much stronger for it.
To hear more stories about the Black Forest Wildfire (including appearances by yours truly), watch this video by KOAA News Channel 5 and here for a longer version and read this feature article by The Gazette.
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” —Pericles