Things We'll Never Lose in the Fire

Eleven years ago to the day, I was fifteen years old. I was a Sophomore in High School, on my way to an appointment downtown with my mother.

The fire was burning several miles away when we left. It wasn't supposed to come close to our house, but suddenly, the wind shifted and evacuations were under way. My brother and sister left with a neighbor and my mother and I left our appointment early to go home. But coming over the hill, all we could see was smoke and flames. Our entire neighborhood had disappeared, drenched in thick black smoke. I had a panic attack. I was fifteen-years old and my entire life was in that house. All of my journals and notebooks and photos and diaries and notes and poems and memories. I feared the worst. That I had lost everything. That I would be identiy-less without my clothes and shoes and journals and photos. I was defined by my possessions and nostalgic and forgetful.

I thought that without my yearbook, I would someday forget my closest friends. That without my diaries I would forget my past. My whole life since kindergarten had been recorded. I had documented everything. And now? It was all about to become dust. My anxiety mounted and soon I was flailing, hysterical in my mom's mini-van. I didn't want to go home because I was afraid I didn't have one, anymore. I always thought of home as a safe standing structure full of belongings. Pretty soon, I thought, we would be homeless. Have nothing. Be stranded on the outskirts of our past lives.

I still remember what I was wearing. CK jeans and brown mules that I regretted buying but wore anyway because they were the only shoes that matched my Guess? blouse, which was also brown. Brown with beige paisley flowers.

"This is all that's left!" I screamed, to my poor mother who was driving home, strong, patting my arm, telling me everything would be okay. "And I hate these shoes..."

We weren't allowed to go back to our neighborhood so instead we sat at the park down the street with all the neighbors. Some of us were laughing, trying to keep upbeat. Some were crying. I was a total wreck. So much so, my mother at one point yelled at me to calm down.

"You need to get a hold of yourself!" she said. "It's just stuff!"

She was right, although at the time I didn't think so.

"Stuff? STUFF? My journals are not STUFF!"

We waited for my Dad to come home from work. And Rachel and David to come meet us with our dog, Dexter. We waited until we were all together and then we piled in the van and went to my Aunt, Uncle and cousin's house. Where it was safe.

Our house was fine. Dozens of others in the area weren't so lucky and several friends of mine lost their homes and many houses in my neighborhood were damaged. Our clothes smelled like smoke for several months but it could have been a lot worse.

There have been plenty of wild-fires since. Southern California is full of them, but none have been as bad and have hit so close to (my) home as the ones that sparked last night. On the same date they did eleven years ago, October 22nd, 1996.

This morning I got a call from my parents who received a call from the authorities at 6am telling them they needed to pack up their belongings and be ready to evacuate. A new fire had erupted near San Marcos and was blowing toward them. My parents got up and quickly sorted through their belongings.

"Do you want me to grab anything of yours?" My mom asked.

I thought for a moment, half-asleep in bed. I couldn't think of anything. My entire childhood and teendom in boxes in the garage and in my old bedroom and nothing occurred to me as being important enough for my parent's to take with them. It didn't matter: A strange feeling for someone who for so long thought it did. Thought that everything mattered. Thought that stuff was important. That the artifacts of one's past were all one had left to remember her former life. But it wasn't true. It isn't true.

"No." I said. "Whatever you think is important, grab. But I'm fine. I don't need anything."

I hung up the phone with my mother and wandered around the house for an hour or so, thinking about what I had just said. It was unlike me. It was out of character. It was weird.

"The past has passed," I thought. "I don't need things to remind me of who I am. Where I have come from. What I need are friends. And family. And whatever can escape a firestorm in its own two (or four) legs.. Everything else is just ash. Always has been. Even if I didn't think so at the time."

I went to turn on the news, except there was nothing about San Diego. Too many fires in LA County. Too many fires. People being coaxed off their roofs, desperate, trying to fight what they cannot control. Little hoses versus the inferno. It seems so silly. Then, again, I'm in Hollywood, where it's safe. And I remember how scary... the thought... thinking... everything might be gone by morning.

Thinking... everything.

My mother just called me again. Just now while I'm writing this post. But my hands aren't shaking. They always shake-- my hands. They shake when I feel out of control. And anxious. And scared.

"We're evacuating, now," she said. "So is Aunt Fran. And Nana. The local lifeguard went to Nana's house and told her it's time to leave. We're all going to Grandma and Grandpa's."

"But Aunt Fran is in Rancho Santa Fe. And Nana's in Del Mar..."

"It's everywhere, now," my mother said. "250,000 people have been evacuated this morning. No one knows what's going to happen. We're all at the mercy of the wind."

She sounded like she did eleven years ago. Calm. Collected. Matter-of-fact. Wise beyond her ability to recognize her wisdom.

"Let's just pray the wind goes the other way," she said.

"Okay," I said. "I'll pray."

We hung up and I looked at my hands. Still not shaking. Not even a little bit scared but maybe that's what happens when you're in shock. Because last night everyone was in their homes and today.... Things are different. Because the wind picked up. Because it's so dry. Because there is nothing anybody can do. Because most of the time, there is nothing anybody can do.

We're all at the mercy of the wind. Whether its a fire storm or a brain tumor that looks like a heart. Growing. Shifting. Moving the right and then wrong way. At the wind's mercy. All of us. The sick and the dying and the healthy and the newly born. Our future and the world we haven't taken care of. A land whose rebellion is stronger than any force. Any prayer. Any hope.

Today dozens of fires are blazing out of control around Southern California. Many of which are 0% contained. And around the world they also burn. And even in the safe neighborhoods smoke looms overhead. Ash is in the air. Some fires are inescapable. Sometimes there is nothing we can do.

We're at the mercy of the wind-- More than we care to admit.

I have no idea what's going to happen. No one does. And for some reason, where that once seemed extremely scary it is now somewhat of a a relief. A relief because sometimes it takes an evacuation to know where home really is.

And sometimes it's better to stand back and hold the hands of those who truly matter than to stand on a roof amidst the flames trying to protect things that never really did.

Because no matter what may burn in the fire, there are some things impenetrable. Indestructible. And those are the things that matter most of all-- and the only things really worth protecting.

To all readers in evacuation zones (I know many of you, personally) my thoughts are with you and your families. Praying that the wind blows the other way...


(This video was taken in Joshua Tree several weekends ago of friends Ryan and Cheryl (Fort King) rocking out in the very wee hours of the morning. I thought it was apropos to the above post, considering the lyrics and all...)


Anonymous | 2:53 PM

Excellent post! And, so very true about what really matters.

I am in Orange county, Fullerton to be exact, and although there isn't a fire within 20 miles of me, the sky is gray and ash is falling like snow here. I have many friends in the SD area who are also evacuating. It feels like October 2003 all over again. Wierd.

Times like these make you remember which 'things' mean the most

silver screen pipe dreams | 2:55 PM

When I was in the 4th grade, nine years old, there was a forest fire in the mountains where I lived. I remember coming home from swim team and being terrified at the sight of the smoke in the trees.
We were only allowed to enter the neighborhood because our grandmother was home, without a way out. Me and my three younger siblings raced into the house, desperate to save what was dear to us--our stuffed animals. We filled suitcases with them. It's funny to realize what you hold dear, now and as a child. Our house was fine, the fire was farther up the mountain so our parents made us stay the night at home, despite our clamours of alarm. My mom had to sleep with me that night and for nights afterward I'd lay in bed imagining fire licking along the corner of the roof I could see from my bed.
It's still a little terrifying to me in it's ability to give life, and destroy, both so quickly. I hope your family and friends are all okay.

Anonymous | 3:38 PM

wow and all day i have been singing "how do we sleep while our beds are burning..." Now it makes sense. somewhere someone's bed is burning. your post made me sad for all of those who are living that right now :(

divrchk | 4:23 PM

Praying for the wind to die down and blow away from the homes of those that I love...

Anonymous | 5:10 PM

we've been packed and ready for hours now. we were told to stay and turn on our air conditioning. its just an awful feeling. it was nice to read this...I have no idea why but it was a comfort.

barbara | 5:34 PM

sending you love.

Molly | 6:07 PM

My stepfather's kids and their families are all in San Diego. I've gotten emails from all three of them in the last few hours, and they're all on high alert, except for the youngest. They've been told to take what they can get together in an hour and go. When I talked to her a few minutes ago, they were on their way to Palm Springs, and she sounded like you do. "It's all just stuff," she said. "We can get more stuff. Everything I need is in this car with me." They do this all the time, she says.

I can't imagine. I'm thinking of them, and of you.

Kyran | 6:57 PM

first, it boggles my mind to think you were fifteen years old in 1996. I was getting out of my first marriage and into my second; I guess I was your age now.

holy shit.

but that's not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that I have been through several kinds of consuming fires, literal and metaphorical. I have twice lost nearly every thing I owned.

and you're right. the things you actually need turn out to be replaceable. the things that are irreplacable, well, it turns out their value was never in the object. it stays with you.

Scar | 7:19 PM

I love the song. I guess there really is nothing you can do. My dad just hopped a plane for NYC for a few days. I just started packing my stuff. Because you're right - it is better to stand back and hold the hands of those who truly matter.. and that's what I plan on doing soon.

Phoenix | 8:49 PM

I moved out of LA 6 weeks ago and right now I'm so glad. Mostly because I'm asthmatic and the air would just kill me. But I hope your families houses are okay.

I guess as we get older, we learn that the only thing that matters is our family and friends. Stuff can be replaced and what can't be...well it isn't worth what our peeps are.

Anonymous | 9:25 PM

I have a lump in my throat right now after reading your post. So true and so beautifully written. I lived in Encinitas for years and my husband's family still lives down there. They've all been evacuated but up here, in the Bay Area, I feel ignorantly safe. I pray that the winds shift, that the fog returns and we can all remain blissfully, ignorantly safe.

Anonymous | 10:53 PM

I'm in Orange County, too, and my family has asthma but at least our homes aren't burning down...thanks for a poignant post as always. Hoping the wind blows out to sea soon and the fires go out...

Anonymous | 3:39 AM

Over the weekend here in Australia, I enjoyed the weather but I couldn't escape that nagging worry. It was hot for early Spring, far too hot, and I couldn't avoid thinking about the likely bushfire season ahead. When I saw the news about Southern California, it just hurt.

Like you, I experienced bushfires when I was younger - our Ash Wednesday in 1983 was all around me. And with the drought here, and the fires of last summer which covered half the length of the country with smoke, I dread to think of what is to come. I agree with your perspective completely, but I hate to think of what devastation those people affected may be faced with. There will be new 15 year old girls crying for the loss of their journals.

It looks like Australia may be sending firefighters to help soon, the same way the US helped us so much last summer. I don't pray, but my thoughts are there and I hope everyone stays safe. As strange as it is, your wild-fires make Southern California almost seem like home.

Don Mills Diva | 6:50 AM

So true and so well written. Praying the wind will spare your family and so many others who are at its mercy.

Badness Jones | 6:53 AM

I've never had to worry about a bushfire, but we had a housefire when I was about 6. I remember it was winter, and it was dark, and when my mom brought me home from Brownies all the firetrucks surrounding the house. We were lucky too, and they were able to put it out before there was too much damage. But my heart goes out to everyone who's not so lucky and I'll be thinking of all of you and praying for you all to stay safe.

BOSSY | 7:48 AM

Sorry baby!

Tiffany | 9:00 AM

My aunt, uncle, and cousins were evacuated last night. They are taking it well, but this is such a scary time.

I'm keeping everyone in my prayers.

Kara | 9:05 AM

this may well be the best post I've read anywhere. I've printed it out to share with my students today (I hope you don't mind- giving you full props) as a reality check and as the work on their "This I believe" essays.

Hang in there.

Binky | 9:22 AM

Looks like a good perspective to me. I was and will continue to be thinking about you and your family.

PunditMom | 10:12 AM

As always, I love your amazing perspective. Your words really keep me grounded when I'm mentally spinning out of control

Anonymous | 12:19 PM

Beautiful post - we had an apartment fire last year (and, like you, everything turned out to be fine) and I had the same revelation... that it truly is just STUFF.

Also, we're the same age! :-)

Anonymous | 1:14 PM

It always amazed me when people talk about how dangerous California is because of earthquakes. There is so much more lost to floods and wildfires.

I remember a couple that came close enough to see from the house (we lived near hills) when I was a kid. My thoughts are with everyone leaving their homes.

Anonymous | 2:20 PM

I never got a yearbook from high school. I don't have the flower I wore to the prom, because I never went to a prom. I wasn't raised in a family that had a cam-corder, and we weren't much for pictures.

So I don't have any of that stuff. But I have my memories, and I remember everything.

Anonymous | 3:42 PM

I live in San Diego County. I have not been evacuated, but the sky is grey, it smells of smoke and it's snowing - ash.

I thought about what I'd take if I were evacuated.. and nothing significant came to mind. Myself and my daughter.. safely getting out. That's all I ask for. Everything else - just memories that will never be burned away.

lmb | 8:47 PM

I've been on the phone seemingly nonstop since Sunday with friends and family in San Diego (I lived there for eight years) and LA. Most of them are tucked away in the city, but that doesn't make it any less scary. I hope your family is ok.

Cheryl | 2:15 AM

I live in the Santa Clarita Valley. Thankfully, the winds shifted and calmed here, and things have gotten better.

This post is so beautifully written. and somehow relaxing. She says as she sits at her computer at 2-something AM because the air suddenly seemed smokier and she had to get up.

Anyway... Thank you.

Anonymous | 5:23 AM

Stay strong and be safe.

Anonymous | 8:13 AM

We're praying for you guys out there. in our prayers.

Raleigh, NC

SportsMum | 12:18 PM

Wonderful post. My heart is aching as I sit here in the Mid-West and think about the ashes falling on my friends in Orange County (our previous home...) It's just stuff but it's also your life...Good luck my California friends!

Her Bad Mother | 9:31 AM

My family lost our home to fire when I was five years old. I can still remember the crackling, the smoke, and being worried about my things. It never occured to me, then, that people might be in danger - that *we* might be in danger - just that my pictures and my monkey, George, and other treasures - treasures without legs - would be lost. Such is the mind of the five year old. Such is the misapprehension of loss until real loss occurs.

Praying that the winds blow well, blow kindly, for you.

Lindsey Fyfe | 4:48 AM


I've read your blog ever since I moved out of los angeles a year ago for a MFA in the UK. Your writing is sincere and fun and artsy and gives me a does a southern california / which I miss all the time!

I'm a few years younger than you and the way you write about your children and family make me excited to be a mother, sometime down the line.

BPB is the best and I was pleased to see Cheryl singing in the video you posted. I was in some bands in Silverlake and would run into her at pappy & harriets or backyard jams or rehearsal studios in glassel park. I always thought of Cheryl as a breath of fresh air within the somewhat soul-sucking hipster music scene. Like a modern day Joni Mitchell. It was a pleasant surprise to hear her lovely voice again as I sit eating breakfast in edinburgh.

Anyway thanks for what you do and enjoy that sunshine -- there isn't any here! x Lindsey