On Saturday night after St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood’s Lessons and Carols service (which was glorious, by the way), one of my fellow acolytes, Anthony Palacios, came up and told me he had been worried about our orange grove up in Ojai because of the Thomas Fire. I let him know all was well – so far – to which he said, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that since my parents, who live in Ojai, lost their home.”
I was taken aback. “They lost their home?”
“Yes, they live up on Sulphur Mountain and they barely got out. I called them several times over the day and evening, begging them to leave, then tried again around 1:30 in the morning. My step-dad had already gone to bed. My mom was reassuring me they were fine when she suddenly said, ‘Oh dear, our patio furniture is on fire.'” Anthony went on to tell me that his mother and step-dad (both in their late 70s) hurriedly left the house, drove their family car and their motorhome a short distance down the road, then watched as their house burned to the ground within an hour.
Dear Lord in heaven.
Our neighbor in the river bottom below our orange grove told us that he’d planned to fight the fire with multiple fire hoses he had on hand should it come his way. But then he said, “I heard a sound like I’ve never heard in my life and looked out the window. A wall of fire, a hundred feet tall and three hundred feet wide, came roaring down the river bed three hundred feet away. I knew right then that if the fire jumped that bank and came towards us, we were dead. There was no fighting a fire like that.” Luckily, the fire didn’t jump the bank. Our neighbor lamented that he had talked his family into staying down there with him. “Never again,” he said. “It’s just pure luck that we’re still alive. My bad idea could have killed not just me, but my whole family.”
I have struggled to put my thoughts on paper regarding the Thomas fire. Ninety homes are gone in Ojai, over 1000 in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and over 230,000 acres have currently burned. The fire is only 15% contained right now and is already the fifth largest wildfire in recorded California history. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional impact for those who have seen everything they own go up in flames. I know even our small brush with the soot, ashes and bad air quality makes me realize in a very real way how fortunate we were the fire hovered on every side of us, but didn’t cross over onto our land and leave only charred remains. I feel extremely grateful about that lucky turn of events.
There is a common saying in Alanon and AA that goes like this: If you don’t believe in a power greater than yourself, then just stick a knife into an electric socket and see how you feel then.” I found myself thinking of that saying as I walked through the ash-covered orange grove with my mask covering my face. “Don’t believe in a power greater than yourself? Well, let me just strike this match and you can hold your finger over it.”
Fire is formidable, mysterious, life-giving and life-taking. A power truly greater than ourselves. I feel certain every fight fighter who is out on those front lines carries a deep respect for the power of fire. I now look at those firefighters with a newfound respect. Not that I didn’t appreciate them before now, but, at this point, I am much more aware of just exactly how brave and selfless they are. True heroes.
All of this made me think about our country and our world. People all over this planet band together and help each other during times of trouble. We fight side-by-side, do extraordinary things, share common sorrows. Big problems make small difference fall away. We are united. One. Decent. Kind. Compassionate.
Despite the hardship of the Thomas fire for so many, I can’t help but feel heartened about the human condition. We are good people down deep. Sometimes it takes something bigger than ourselves to remind us of our common humanity.