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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Thoughts From a Wildfire Novice

On Wednesday I didn't go to work because I was feeling sick - sore throat, lethargic, headache...you know how it is. I started feeling sick on Monday when the hot and dry Santa Ana winds blew in and spread allergens all over the county, causing sudden sneeze attacks. It was so windy that doors violently swung open at the slightest nudge and my little kindergartners complained of feeling like they were being knocked down. So, late Wednesday morning I was laying on the couch downstairs when I got a text from one of my coworkers.
Then I went to my backyard and saw this to my left, south of me:
And that's how I was introduced to Southern California's infamous fire season. I spent the following 48 hours glued to media: constantly watching live streaming of the fires, checking twitter for minute-by-minute fire updates, looking up the hashtags #poinsettiafire #sandiegofires and #cocosfire on Instagram, and sending hundreds of text messages to my concerned loved ones.
*By the way, I took this screen shot today. The day of the fires it was about 100 degrees.*
There were seven simultaneous fires in North County San Diego on Wednesday; here's a map. The ones causing the most destruction were the fire in Carlsbad, where I live, and the fire in San Marcos, where I work. More than a hundred thousand people had to evacuate their homes, schools were closed county-wide, and dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed, along with thousands of acres of land. There is still no answer as to why most of these fires began (many suspect it was arson), all that is certain is that the drought and the dry and hot Santa Ana winds very much exacerbated them. 
Having lived in the East Coast for many years, my knowledge of natural disasters was all about hurricanes. I was living in Miami when Hurricane Andrew tore through and leveled everything in its path. That was a scary time and the aftermath was incredible. But with hurricanes, you know they're coming. You have days to board up your house or evacuate. You have time to load up on food and water. Not that it always works, of course, but at least it doesn't take you by complete surprise. With these fires, that is not the case. What begins as a report of a small brush fire escalates into a widespread chaotic scene within minutes. If you're at work or at the gym or the grocery store and your home is unfortunate enough to be in the path of the wildfire there's almost no time to salvage anything. One minute your home is fine and the next it's on fire because an ember blew onto it from the strong winds. Even though my area did not have to evacuate, I was constantly looking over my shoulders, certain that our backyard would be in flames. By the evening my nerves were shot.
Over the last few days I've learned a lot about fires.
I've learned that black smoke = bad and white smoke = less bad.
I've learned that two days off from work sounds like fun but isn't when your city is burning.
I've learned that watching uninterrupted news will make you crazy.
I've learned that fire tornadoes aren't just in my nightmares.
I've learned that journalists wear bright yellow fire resistant jackets.
I've learned that fire retardant comes in many colors.
I've learned that firefighters from all over California came down to help because firefighters are amazing.
I've learned that #PrayForSanDiego was trending on Twitter.
I've learned that people will try to save their home using a garden hose.
I've learned that it's hard to peel yourself away from the constant media updates but once you do it's good for your soul. We took a break from all the commotion on Thursday evening and went to the beach to recharge.
It was a little unsettling to see the smoke clouds in the sky but it really calmed my anxiety to be by the ocean and focus my attention on my surroundings, like the clinking sounds the stones makes when the waves rush over them, making them all click together; the feeling of the soft, warm sand under my bare feet; the birds, just doing their thing, living in the present and not thinking of the fires; and the beautiful, yet eerie, colors of the sunset, intensified by all the smoke in the air. Having my camera to make me focus on the shot at hand was also tantamount to keeping me grounded.
I know not everyone can just run out to the beach when fires are blazing out of control but if you can manage it, I highly recommend it for its restorative powers.
So while I learned much from these unfortunate fires (which are mostly contained now, by the way), there were also many reaffirmations:
Disasters make people nicer to each other and communities pull together.
A time of crisis makes people realize that possessions aren't as important as we think, what really matters is the safety of our loved ones (humans and animals).
Live life to the fullest every day because life is short.
The American Red Cross is a badass organization.
Firefighters are everything.
If you wish to help those affected by these fires and/or the firefighters please click here for more information. 
Have a better week everyone!

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