The fire families are like turtles. We carry our homes on our backs. Each of us who lost our home has had to go into the world carrying with us our dignity and what few things we have.
The first day or so after the fire everyone in the entire town was metaphorically wandering around in a daze. Together were experiencing a panoply of emotions including the loss of our homes or our friends or family’s homes, feelings of survivor guilt for having had the house that that did not burn in a cluster of homes that did, or experiencing the feeling of “Thank God it was not my house but I am still frightened at the thought that it could have been.”
After the initial shock and the immediate support, post-disaster pustules arose. This is, of course, normal. In truth, we have had very few. People around the country are amazed at the wonderful things our community has done for us. Nonetheless, the Red Cross was right in warning us that people would say awful things to us and we would have to let it go. They reminded us that it could be hard for people to know what to say even when they wanted to be supportive they could got flustered. We were prepared, I though.
About the third day after the fire a few people started saying things to me like, “Well, when you rebuild, you should make sure not to have so many trees around.” Some people said, “You had so many trees close.” Others said it right out. “If you had cut down those junipers and put in a lawn your house would not have burned.” At first I was just shocked. It had not crossed my mind that I had caused my house to be one of the 66 that burned. Then I was hurt. I was left standing in the ash asking myself why I had done this terrible thing. Finally, I just got mad.
During the time that I let myself buy into my own guilt and the stigmatizing comments that came my way, I was driven to learn about fire to find out if it somehow was my fault. Even then I was relatively certain it was the fire, not me, that caused my house to burn.
In the wake of the disaster, we discovered a checkerboard pattern were some houses burned and others did not. I stared at houses that did and did not burn trying to figure out what was different about them. Did that house survive because someone did chop the native trees down and plant manicured lawn? Was there some sort of natural firebreak? Did that house survive because its people were somehow better than others of us? Were they just in the right place at the right time and I was in the wrong place at the same time? Truthfully from what I have learned about fire, it is all up to the fire. When the fire is churning along like ours did it creates its own weather systems and it twists and circles and turns in on itself building in power here and literally burning itself out there. Hence, the checkerboard. I don’t think this is the technical language to describe it but it is a satisfactory answer for me.
As best we can tell, the fire split as it advanced toward us. It came from below us and from above us, having consumed houses across the street to the left and to the right. When it jumped the road, one tongue came from below and one from above. It was like the vortex created in a white water river when the water splits and then rejoins to make its way around a boulder. My house was that vortex, Two roaring tongues of fire converged on our home. When it had had its fill, there was no evidence of the two stories of logs that had been our walls. There was only ash. Around the house the trees were nubbins that looked like dead cypress stumps in a swamp.
I can imagine the hungry fire re-joining itself creating its vortex swirling around my house filling its belly with good things to eat. I cannot be angry with the fire, but I can imagine it having a voracious, unquenchable and unmindful appetite. I can imagine the fire from the inside swirling and feinting, thrusting and lunging its way along in a blind passion with no direction or reason. When it encountered the firefighters, it was as if it parried to block their attack and then turned to flee in confusion. In the end, the fire lost itself. After three days it had no energy left. The fire was out.
Those in the fire affected area did not cause or prevent our homes from burning. The fire, in its torrid passion, took or left homes without judgment and without intention.Survivors all, we carry what we have, a bittersweet relief of having a home that did not burn or the remembrance of one that did.
Those of us who carry our homes as memories are turtles. I think that is good. We can pull our heads and feet into our shells and close out the world when we need. When we are ready to move, we simply unfold our legs and stick our our heads, pick up the house we hold in our minds, and move forwards.