A Camp Fire Story – walking the path of faith & trust
I am a survivor of the Camp Fire that occurred on Thursday, November 8, 2018, exactly two years ago today. I wrote this story sometime in the first year post-fire and dedicate it to everyone that has ever been affected by a disaster.
It is just over a year since I moved to my oasis in Paradise, California, a town of 27,000 residents in the foothills of the Sierras. Douglas fir, pine, redwood, and cedar trees surround and serve as guardians of my almost one acre, lush, fenced in property. Fragrant yellow and red roses intoxicate the senses, and flowering lavender invites hands to embrace softness and inhale perfume. The curved, swirling swimming pool with its creek sounding water feature soothes everyone that visits. Statues of spiritual icons are scattered throughout, uniting the mystical with the physical, and a grandmother oak tree oversees it all. It is a perfect place for me—not isolated, yet a private world offering expansion and relaxation.
I’m sleeping in after leading a ceremony in Chico the night before and rudely awakened at 8:30am by the blaring phone ring. “There’s a fire near you. Check it out.” I look out the window and am greeted by darkness. This is strange. I go to the front porch where an apocalyptic vision of otherworldly colors—deep red, orange, grey, and black—encompass the sky. Darkness rains ash as smoke seeps into my eyes and lungs. This is real.
There have been fires in Paradise before, yet none had ever reached my part of town. I get ready to leave for what I think are just a few days. Gather vitamins. Dog food for Apu, my corgi mix companion. My soft, maroon sweatpants and bulky sweater feel cozy, and I take another sweater, just in case. I pick up my medicine bundle, get in my car, and drive down my eerily still and vacant street. At the corner I’m shocked to see dozens of cars siting in motionless traffic. Shoeless pedestrians wrapped in blankets are hurriedly walking down the hill. Disabled community members in wheelchairs, small dogs held tightly on their laps, are rolling themselves forward. Panic is everywhere. What is going on? What should I do?
I take a risk and drive down the empty left lane, overflowing with gratitude for last night’s ceremony. If I hadn’t gone into Chico, my gas tank would be nearly empty, and I would have to stop at a crowded gas station. Helpers on street corners herd me down side streets I rarely travel until I finally arrive to the Skyway, one of the only roads out of town. A first responder waves me forward—directly into a tunnel of flames.
I suddenly find myself surrounded by cars filled with fleeing families, each of us driving about five miles an hour. Majestic trees are spontaneously falling. All vehicle makes and models are haphazardly abandoned. This blaze is too close for comfort, and when I look into the rear-view mirror, I can’t imagine anyone will survive. To my right, skyscraper-like flames are engulfing my friend’s house. Is Paula dead? On the left, formally safe havens have become charcoal factories. Apu sits unusually still and quiet in the back seat, eyes wide, ears upright, all his senses heightened. His leash is on in case we have to vacate the car; I am not going to lose him.
My sweaty hands hug the steering wheel as I chant over and over, “It is not my destiny to die in a fire. It is not my destiny to die in a fire…” Survival demands a sharp mind and expansive peripheral vision. Hyper alert, I drive slow and steady as flaming tree limbs miss my car by inches. At one point I see a distant clear sky with hints of sun. Can I actually exhale? No. The illusion of safety vanishes as I become enveloped in smoke once again. Will this nightmare ever end? As I continue my escape to a friend’s house in Chico, what would normally be a thirty-minute drive becomes three hours.
The television is constantly on. I pray my property is spared, yet as news filters in, wonder if that is a good idea. No one but first responders and media are allowed into Paradise. A few days later while out for dinner with friends, a television crew enters the restaurant. They are going the next day. I beg, “Will you take me?” I agree to be filmed.
The newsman and I drive up the Skyway in the same lane I had driven down only one week before. Ashes and debris are everywhere. Did a bomb go off? Paradise is a toxic dump. My street is littered with burned trucks and cars. We wear masks to protect our lungs and booties to save our shoes. My oasis is gone—the house, garage, sheds, and healing studio are all part of a dream-like past. The entire kitchen is in the basement, now a giant junkyard. A skeleton of a metal table lays on its side on the broken concrete patio. The formally pristine pool has been replaced by a murky swamp.
I silently walk the perimeter of my property over and over, looking for remnants of my life. A sea of rubble has replaced a sanctuary. The news crew films yet gives me space to absorb this new reality. “What are you feeling?” I can barely speak. This must be shock. The words that emerge are about what it had been just a week earlier. “Who do I hold responsible?” they want to know. Only an outsider could think I’m grounded enough to consider that. Remaining lucid and integrating the present moment are my tasks.
The spiritual statues stand out like lights in the darkness. There’s Guadalupe, lying on her side. Infused with fire medicine, she’s gone from tan to multi-shades of black and brown. Angels look up at the heavens from the noxious ground. Saint Francis is still upright. Is he waiting for wildlife to return? Buddha stares compassionately from the center of a burned-out flower bed. The small icon of my power animal, a gift from my son, is unscathed and sits at his usual place at the fire pit. Amazing. I pick up some crystals that had formally infused the earth. The grandmother tree, a bit scorched, is well; what a story she has to tell. I am alive, yet most everything I know and count on is gone. Where do I go? How do I remain sane and healthy?
I ended up landing in Chico (for now). As I edit this story, fierce, relentless winds, not unlike the ones of two years ago, are visiting. There seems to be something about the two-year mark after a trauma… Today the wind is certainly doing its part to unleash emotions that had been lying latent under newly gained stability. I think I will take Apu for a walk in the windiest area. Spread my arms and allow the blustery air to free me of as much heavy energy as possible. The third year awaits. It’s time for empowerment.