The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.
And we’re two weeks into January.
It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.
Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.
Still wearing our masks.
And we pray for rain.
The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.
We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.
We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.
We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.
Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.
All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.
Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.
We felt we had been spared.
Until the smoke came.
The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.
Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.
So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.
We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.
The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.
The battle was won.
We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.
And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.
While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.
We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.
“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.
And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.
For a moment.
Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.
Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.
Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”
None of it seemed real.
A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.
But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”
It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.
It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.
To have survived.
So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?
The rain was not the fire.
We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.
We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.
And so we stayed.
Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.
And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.
(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live. If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact: Disaster Relief Organizations