My two greatest fears are drowning and burning in a fire. I have had nightmares about both scenarios since I was a young child. I suppose that my fear of fires began when a man on our street died in his bed as his house became a blazing inferno. I vividly recall seeing the damage to his home and watching him being wheeled out with a sheet over his body. I was probably no more than four or five years old when it happened. I stood by my mother as I witnessed this tragedy, but never spoke to her of the horror that I felt. I only internalized the terror that it wrought in me, and worried about what I might do if my own home one day went up in flames.
I have smoke alarms and a ladder upstairs under a bed that can be used as a way of getting out through a window if the exit routes are blocked. I am very conscious of sounds and smells in the night and I used to drill my daughters when they were still children so that they would know what to do in the event of a fire. While the thought of losing my home to fire is one of my worries, I still feel as though the odds of it happening are unimaginable. I suppose that nonetheless my phobia has led me to closely follow the stories of wildfires in other parts of the country and to wonder if any such event might ever happen to me.
I have been both horrified and saddened by the most recent fires in California. The videos of individuals fleeing in their cars past walls of flames, burned out vehicles and structures reduced to ash is incredibly frightening. I find myself thinking about those images and the unfortunate souls trapped in a kind of hell on earth as they attempt to save their lives. The fact that so many did not make it, is sobering. One minute these folks lived in a delightful town that was truly a kind of paradise and the next all hell broke lose with little or no warning. They have returned to a landscape that not even a war might duplicate. There is literally nothing left of their material lives other than the clothes on their backs.
While still being alive is dear compensation given so many who have died and are missing, it is little comfort to think of having to start over from the ground up. So many questions and fears must be overtaking their minds. They have literally lost the sense of security that usually comes with having a home filled with all of the memories of a lifetime. How will they ever again sleep peacefully at night? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay and still feel safe? How will the world ever feel the same again?
I have no idea what we all might do to help these souls, but I suspect that if each and everyone of us became committed to sending them hope and supplies and funds for rebuilding their lives the goodness might help to assuage some of the that sadness must be overwhelming them at this moment. I know that those in Houston who lost their homes to the floods of Hurricane Harvey were bolstered by the kindness of both friends and strangers. While they still flinch when it rains and relive the moments when they had to flee their homes, they all tell of the ways in which people gathered like a village to ease their pain and suffering. It was in such human compassion that they found the courage to begin their lives anew.
I’d like to think that we will suspend our negative commentaries about what they might have done more to prevent those fires in the first place, or suggestions that they had somehow chosen places to live that were not meant to be inhabited. When water or fire is consuming your home it is not the time to hear lectures on what should have been. Instead voices of understanding and love are what is needed. Luckily there always seem to be caring souls among us, but in such extreme cases we need even more of them. It is up to us not to just have feelings but to help in constructive ways.
Here in the Christmas season many people search for families and individuals whom they might help in tangible ways. I’d like to suggest that the people in California who have lost so much represent a most noble cause. We might set aside a certain amount of money each day in December to be sent to organizations that will be helping in the rebuilding process. We may want to purchase a single household item each day to send to some family or group. How wonderful would it be to buy a book each day to ship to schools and libraries? One person doing this might not make a dent in the needs, but if our whole nation worked together like so many did in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, just think of how much more quickly the affected people might return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Such programs might be organized through schools or churches for maximum effect. Whole families may want to forego a present or two in order to instead purchase necessities for the people affected by the fires. Those with building skills might offer their services. College students could urge their fraternities, sororities and clubs to make the burned out families their special projects.
It’s up to us now not to criticize, but rather to find constructive ways to help. There will be plenty of time later to determine what changes must happen and how to insure that they take place. In times like this fault finding means little. Compassion and empathy and meaningful help are the things these unfortunate souls need. Let’s get the process started.