The clearing skies of the last couple of days have been welcome relief for evacuated residents, like me, most of whom have been allowed to return home. Remnants of the Gap Fire still loom, however-helicopters patrol, ash and blistered leaves blow around our yard and inside our house, and things are disheveled from frantically packing for the evacuation.
I am thankful for the fortune of my situation during the fire threats; my family was able to stay together with our dog and be relatively comfortable (especially after we purchased a box of ear plugs to block out Grandpa’s snoring). We were a bit more inconvenienced than disappointed by not getting to watch Thursday night prime time or having to read a book by candlelight because of power outages. The stress and exhaustion of the whole ordeal was one of the most physically and emotionally draining experiences that I have ever had.
It is overwhelming to describe what it was like to think it might be the last time I’d ever be standing inside my house. It isn’t about “the stuff”-even the most valuable and irreplaceable things are merely things. It’s the awful feeling of displacement and losing your sense of home that makes it hard to leave. Still, when it came down to it, gathering a few things was extremely challenging. Touching the ivory keys on my piano, I nearly cried realizing that what I wanted most to save was impossible to take with me.
In retrospect, with my house still standing, it all sounds horribly over-dramatic. But when there is an enormous blaze literally right outside your window and everything is lit in an ominous gold and thick ash is blowing in your face and the Sheriff’s Department is knocking on the door to tell you to evacuate, the adrenaline rushes through like mad. Until it’s threatened, it is hard to realize how extensively the comforts of familiarity and security are wrapped up inside the walls of home.
When I went to work last Thursday afternoon, it seemed impossible that the fire would spread closer to my house. I was feeling good about getting into the groove of my new job in the Girls’ Department at Nordstrom, but then the evening power outages occurred and I began to worry. There was a surge of awareness, with employees monitoring the escalators and managers with walkie-talkies running around the store. I called home to check in, the tone in my dad’s voice unnerving, as he attempted to disguise his panic with calm composure. I was too far away to help, all I could do was wait. Wait for updates, wait for electricity, wait to go home.
There is a lot to be said for time spent waiting, there is a lot of thinking to be done and lessons to be learned in the waiting period. At first my thoughts were about what I had packed in my “just in case” bags. I had my jewelry, pictures, hard drive and my computer, but I had no toothbrush and only one pair of underwear. Although these items are replaceable, they are not immediately replaceable and it should not be overlooked that a lot of comfort can be found in a familiar pair of underwear.
After work I went to my grandparents’ house where my family stayed during our evacuation; there was more waiting. I thought about the importance of laughter during serious situations. Humor came in brief moments of conversation. For example, my aunt said that if the power goes out and you don’t know what to do, just make sure you eat the ice cream to save it from melting. Or my dad walking into the kitchen in the morning and my grandma telling him, “You look less cranky today.” (I’m certain that she is the only person in the world who could get away with telling him that!) My favorite funny moment was watching our neighbor riding around our evacuated neighborhood on his bicycle in shorts and a T-shirt and wearing swim goggles conducting his own damage assessment.
Everywhere people were talking to each other, sharing news updates, stories, and laughs. It was a bonding experience for our family and my neighborhood. On Sunday, my first day back in my house, about half a dozen people were gathered at the top of Calle Manadero and Calle Meleno, the northernmost streets of my neighborhood, the same spots we had all looked out over immediately before the evacuation order, swearing the fire was definitely far enough away not to be a threat. Looking at the incredible amount of burned land immediately behind our homes, we all were saying to each other, how amazing is this and how lucky are we?
Kathleen Zaratzian is an Independent intern.