Moving to California felt like moving to a new country. One impression that has struck me deeply is the sense that there is a certain “untamed” quality about living here. Between the majestic beauty of the mountains, the wild and dangerous coastline and the mysterious vastness of the Pacific Ocean, mother nature has a strong hold over our lives. Maybe that’s why our state has such a pro-active population when it comes to preserving this rugged beauty. Day by day we’re engaged in what might be termed a dance with nature: trying to appreciate this precious partner, to enjoy the beauty of her paces and not step on her toes.
At the same time we live with ever-present threat of the next big one and in recent weeks found ourselves facing the destructive forces of fire driven by strong winds. I’ve since learned that the bone dry conditions of late summer inevitably spark over a thousand fires over California. Under usual conditions we might be inconvenienced when some fire in some remote area gets too close to a highway. It’s a whole different story when the wildfire enters a densely populated area.
I recently traveled through one area affected, I found myself becoming emotional seeing the charred trees, the utter destruction of buildings left with nothing but rubble and twisted metal, and the random way in which the fire selected its victims.
There were two reasons I became emotional. One was the picture of a literal holocaust (the word itself refers to complete burning up by fire). The second was the recognition of the incredible valor of the fire fighters and everyone involved in securing lives in those early horrifying minutes and subsequently attacking one of the largest conflagrations in California history. Just thinking of the combined forces of eleven thousand firefighters attacking the overwhelming forces of wind and flame on dry vegetation and buildings was humbling.
I’m still amazed at the ability and speed in which such a huge number of people were organized sparing thousands of lives. I’m deeply moved by all those families and individuals who lost their homes and all their possessions—many of them family heirlooms and priceless memories—the stories of terror and bravery; the compassion showed to neighbors by people for whom every second counted in attempting their own escape and ultimately, the lives that were lost.
The 911 dispatchers were the unsung heroes fielding hundreds of calls from people screaming for help; telling them that help was on the way; hearing from the firefighters that the flames were making it impossible to break through and staying on the phone until the line became silent.
Is it possible not to be emotional? These are times when the partnership of the dance tragically becomes a need to overcome and take control. Clearly, there’s something to be learned from every experience. These are moments that bring out the extremes of human nature as well. It’s important to reflect on the overwhelming number of acts of compassion and bravery that overshadowed those who choose to profit from the misery of others.
We really are privileged to live in a great state and as we look ahead to the future, may our dances be celebrations filled with tears of joy.