On Forest Fires

In 1991, Clyde the Wonder Cat and I lived in a small in-law apartment in the basement of a house in the Oakland Hills. Single and just a few years into my career, I was beginning to acquire a cool stash of consumer goods—television, skis, Yamaha tenor sax—that constituted indicia of a comfortable, enjoyable life to come.

On the morning of October 21, my girlfriend and I drove to San Francisco to attend a birthday brunch for a friend. On the way back, we noticed a column of smoke in the East Bay. “Must be something on fire in the port,” I guessed. As we turned onto the Bay Bridge, we saw that the smoke was coming from the hills, not the port. “How close is that to our neighborhood?” Linda asked. (She owned a house a couple of miles from my apartment.) The closer we got, the more apparent it was that the smoke was indeed coming from our neighborhood.

We got to within two blocks of my apartment before being turned away by emergency personnel. Retreating to Linda’s house, we watched the news reports of what came to be known as the Oakland Hills fire. Eventually, we had to evacuate her house and flee with a carful of her possessions to her parents’ home in the Berkeley hills.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Linda’s house survived. My apartment did not. (Clyde the Wonder Cat lived through a feat of derring-do worthy of another writing.) Over 2,000 homes burned.

I lost everything. The fire was so intense that there was nothing left of the apartment but the foundation of the house above it. There was no sign that my large metal desk or big brass instrument had ever existed; they melted and trickled down the street. I had no clothing, no kitchen gear—not even a toothbrush. I was one of the lucky ones; I had a girlfriend who let me crash at her house. (Admittedly, that worked out well in the long run.) Worse, my mother had sold the family house several years before, and, lacking room in her new apartment to store memorabilia, had distributed almost every memento of my childhood to me and my brothers. Family pictures, Cub Scout and Little League paraphernalia, academic diplomas, and more—all of it was gone.

I learned some lessons from that fire. Not all of them were the right lessons. To my own surprise, I was not devastated by the loss of my apartment or possessions. It was all just stuff. Even the pictures and items of sentimental value were just stuff; I had my memories, and that was enough. The fire didn’t teach me to not get too attached to stuff; it simply showed me that I was already that way. Honestly, by the time of the fire I was already starting to miss the time, just a few years before, when I could move my apartment in a small number of produce boxes in the back of my hatchback. Possessions are nice, but they do not define me. I found Clyde a few days after the fire, and together we sponged off of Linda and her cat, Sporty, while we got back on our feet.

(Another lesson: if your girlfriend is really crazy about you and wants you to move in with her, do it before she burns down half the city just to make it happen. I can’t prove Linda was responsible, but I still have my suspicions.)

In the days following the fire, I watched news reporters thrust microphones and cameras at fire victims to record their tears at having lost their homes and possessions. I was judgmental. Fools, I thought. Everyone in your family is alive. The house was insured. The rest is just stuff. It isn’t worth crying about.

I still think that way, to a certain extent. I do think people are too invested in material possessions, and if my house burned down tomorrow, I’d be okay. Sure I’d be upset—come on, another melted saxophone?—but it’s still just stuff. Nevertheless, in the fullness of late middle age, my perspective has changed. I understand now how lucky I was when the worst happened to me. No one I knew died (although people did perish in the Oakland Hills fire); even my cat survived. I was single; I didn’t have to worry about how much school my kids were missing because school didn’t exist anymore. I was young and healthy; I didn’t have mobility or medication issues that made me dependent on outside resources that suddenly weren’t there. My girlfriend had a house; I wasn’t out on the street, scrambling to find shelter, or dependent on government largesse. Most important, the vast majority of my working life—and thus, my earning power—was still in front of me. Sentimental value aside, everything I lost could be replaced, eventually. It’s a lot easier to lose everything you have when you still have your future.

The median age in Paradise, California, is 50.2 years. A quarter of the population is 65 or older. Many of these folks are undoubtedly on fixed incomes. Many won’t ever be able to replace what they’ve lost. Some likely are facing a reduced standard of living for the rest of their lives. Some may be forced out of the area forever. And, of course, the death toll is still rising. As I write this sentence, a headline is flashing across my tablet that 631 people are missing, and 63 are dead.

I like to think that I could pack up and move tomorrow if I had to, and find the adventure in it. But even I recognize that there comes a point in life when it’s too damned hard to start over. I suppose we’d all like to think that our efforts to build a decent life earn us a certain amount of credit with Fate—that we’re safe, at some point, from the possibility of having the rug yanked out from under us and finding ourselves back at our beginnings. Recent events remind us that it isn’t so. We can lose it all, even our lives, at any time to a random exothermic chemical process of combustion. The only possession we ever get to keep is the one we give away; that is, the imprint we make on the lives of others. Go make one tomorrow.

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