The fire troops still gather for 7 a.m. briefings on the Thomas Fire, burning now mostly in Ventura County.
Stuart Palley/USFS

As we approach the end of a depressing year of frightening national and world events, I find that the Thomas Fire offers hope for a better future.

The year has been filled with the incessant drumbeat of news about tribalism, isolationism, hate-speech, attacks on international agreements, threats to our environment, and a tax cut destined to exacerbate income inequality and erode our safety net. As the year comes to an end, I feel increased fear for the kind of nation and world into which my grandchildren are growing.

It’s mainly my grandchildren and their Goleta-based family that brought my wife and me to Santa Barbara this fall. As our visit approached its end, the Thomas Fire broke out.

While the approaching flames, thickening smoke, and frequent evacuation orders were scary, the governmental and community response to the catastrophe were nothing short of inspirational. In just a few days we witnessed a force of more than 8,000 firefighters, almost 1,000 fire trucks, over 40 helicopters, and a multitude of community-based organizations, from dozens of governmental jurisdictions, coming together, coordinating their work, and mounting a massive resistance to the conflagration. Two base camps came into operation, adding to our sense that the community was fighting a war against an enemy threatening lives and homes.

Every day we tuned our TV to one of the three town meetings at which leaders of the various groups playing a role in this war reported to the community and answered questions in English, Spanish, and sign language, face to face and over local TV and streaming internet. They included the integrated fire departments, Sheriff’s Office, Forest Service, Highway Patrol, Red Cross, police, public health, education, and pollution control agencies, along with a climatologist and a fire behaviorist.

It was as if a magic wand had been waved over the community, erasing the lines of Balkanization that usually separate governmental jurisdictions, joining public, nonprofit, and private organizations in a common effort and erasing the lines that all too often separate political parties, racial and ethnic groups, and social classes.

We were inspired by the stories of heroism and compassion that multiplied as the fire raged on and threatened ever more destruction. Members of fire departments far from Santa Barbara spoke of their being part of a “brotherhood” treating Santa Barbara as “our community.” One member of that brotherhood met his death while risking his life to create a fire wall to protect threatened homes. Helicopter pilots took risks by flying into smoke and wind to drop flame retardant at night. Scores of volunteers ran shelters for those evacuated, and a large showground was converted into a pet sanctuary holding more than 1,000 animals displaced by the fire. One firefighter ran into a burning house and removed family pictures and obviously valuable memorabilia for safekeeping until the family was able to return from their speedy evacuation. Synagogues, mosques, and churches teamed up to provide assistance to the shelters. A motorcyclist rode from house to house in his neighborhood to make sure the elderly had means to evacuate.

We left Santa Barbara for our home in Michigan when victory in fighting the fire seemed assured, and the final town meeting was being held. While we were glad to get away from the smoke-filled sky and the threatening fire, I felt a sense of loss in leaving a community that had come together so impressively in responding to a common threat.

As the year comes to a close, we approach the future with concern whether our nation and our world can avoid splitting apart, whether we can trust each other and trust our government, and whether we’ll ever find a way to get back on a path toward realizing the American dream. The Thomas Fire has demonstrated that the instincts of community and compassion are still very much alive, although all too often hidden from view. It gives us hope that the realization of the tragedies that are bound to occur if current national and world trends continue will prompt us to exhibit these finer instincts that can bring us together in mutual support and return us to the joint task of building a nation and a world that will be safe and supporting for our grandchildren. Thanks, Santa Barbara, for providing this note of optimism to begin the new year.


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