When Disaster Strikes, What Would You Save?

In California, the summers are extremely dry.

We’re blessed if we get any kind of precipitation at all. The thirsty grass turns a golden-brown, the once raging rivers become a trickle, waterfalls dry up, flowers wilt and the sweltering heat arrives. There is no humidity in California. No stickiness—just dry air. And guess what thrives on a bone-dry land? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not cacti.

California glows and burns.

Started by lightning strikes or human stupidity, wildfires are California’s tornadoes and ice storms. With the land being as parched as it is, just one spark can transform thousands of acres into a burnt wasteland. With the help of the the Santa Ana winds or the Delta Breeze, fires gain strength, and the vast unpopulated mountains are the perfect playground for the flames. Then the wind has carries the thick smoke hundreds of miles, suffocating any creature that breathes.

This year, Auburn, a city that’s a 15-minute drive from my house, battled a fire that destroyed more than 50 homes and ten businesses. A high school friend of mine lost her house. When she posted the pictures online, I was terribly disconcerted. For one thing, I know where she lives, but I couldn’t recognize anything familiar in the pictures. Everything was black and charred. Nothing but rubble. Her Facebook status that day said “My home burnt down. My family has nothing.”

I’ve never had to evacuate my house, but we have had wildfires close enough to see from our community. Let me tell you, there’s a feeling of dread—pure, horror. I’ve never felt queasier with fear than when there’s an unstoppable inferno looming on the distant hills, moving at a teasingly slow speed, capable of destroying anything in its path. Flames eat homes and everything inside them.

Here’s where I start hating myself. Here’s where I start digging deep.

This summer I gathered my three miniature dachshunds (wiener or hot dogs), plopped them into the family truck and drove around the neighborhood until I could see the wildfire that blazed out of control in the canyon a few miles from my house. I just had to see for myself how far away it was, how out-of-control it was, how seriously I needed to freak out. Forget about the houses that bordered the canyon… how long would it take for the fire to eat all those houses until it got to mine? And if it got to my house, what could I save? Could I carry the TV by myself? Could I fit all the animals in the truck with Mom’s CPU? Could I stuff all my clothes in a suitcase in time? Could I race around the house and take, well, everything? I decided I could sacrifice the bird and the cat, much to my mother’s chagrin.

Two months later: my house still stands, unharmed. Thanks to brave firefighters, the fire never escaped the rural canyon. I had a breakdown for about two days, and then life returned to normal. My family created a detailed list of what to grab in case of an evacuation, and then we forgot where we put the list.

When I heard about the disaster in Auburn, my heart melted. It melted because people lost everything. Literally, everything but the shirts on their backs. I can’t even imagine the grief and anger they’re going through.

But my heart breaks for an even more substantial reason. What would devastate me the most to lose? It’s things. Aside from my family and my animals, I dread losing material possessions. When that fire was near our house, all I could think about was how terrible life would be if we lost the house and everything in it. Even if all the living things got out safely, I dreaded losing my computer. My Playstation 3. My clothes.

This is where I get mad.

Who am I? I feel like a monster, some material girl who cares more about things than people or life. But I don’t want to be like that. I don’t think that I am like that. But I realized that summer that when your life is threatened, everything you say you are changes. Or it’s at least questioned. Would I really have run around the house gathering up the electronics, forsaking the puppies? No. Never. I don’t think, when it comes right down to it, that I could ever be so materialistic. So why did I freak out about the TV so much that summer?

While I was contemplating these questions, numerous people told me it was normal to feel this way. After all, the things you have are valuable to you. Anyone threatened to lose his or her possessions would act the same way.

The label on one Vitamin Water bottle reads: “vitamins + water = all you need.” In reality, all we need is God, but we build our lives around what we have—what we bring to college. What we keep locked in our rooms. What we save up to buy. But we all know that we can’t take a pinch of it with us when we die. In the back of our minds, we know that nothing we own is important to God. As hard as it is to swallow, life isn’t about things. Things are replaceable. Memories are contained in the hard drives of our minds. Yet we continue about our lives buying and cherishing the newest gadgets. Then the wildfires take it all away, and we’re lost.

I hate feeling that way, but it’s the truth. We do need some material possessions to live in this world, because we’re stuck here. But we can’t forget: millions of people are far less fortunate and live on far less.

Somehow, someone needs to find a way for humanity to return to the simplicity of life. Then, when we lose it all, it’s easier to start over. Because the idea of starting over is very nauseating to me. Especially because I know that fires will continue to ravage California.

No matter what obstacles tumble my way, I hope I’ll remember that God never gives you more than you can handle. The tragedies of the past summer have made me more thankful for everything I own. I hope I’m on my way to recovering from the fear of losing it all. With the drop of a cigarette, it could all be gone. And life is just too precious to waste by worrying about saving a TV.



Originally published Sept. 10, 2009 in the Asbury Collegian.