Let It Burn
It’s taken me a surprisingly long time to feel ready to write about the wildfires that even now, over two weeks after they started, are devastating Southern California. I currently live in my hometown of Ventura, California, where the Thomas Fire tore through the hills on December 4 and 5. The fire continues to burn, having claimed nearly 250,000 acres, two human lives, and countless more animals. It’s the largest fire in the history of Ventura County and the third largest in California history, though it may climb further up the list by the time it's out.
My family had to evacuate in the middle of the night as flames licked the crest of the ridge behind our house (read about what I took with me here). We were able to get ourselves and our companion animals out safely and, out of pure luck, our neighborhood was spared. We live just below a main road that cuts through the hills, which was the de facto divider between homes that survived and those that did not. We returned to find a house a block away from us, right across the road, reduced to smoldering rubble. If the fire had jumped the road, our house would have been quite literally toast.
Being a native Southern Californian, I’ve experienced plenty of wildfires. My late grandmother used to live in a house backed by a barranca (basically a highly flammable miniature canyon) and had several close calls. I remember getting sent home from school once in case my neighborhood was evacuated. I even packed a bag one time, though it probably only held my coin collection and a lollipop since I couldn’t have been older than seven or eight. I wouldn’t say I don’t take fires seriously, but like earthquakes, we have them often enough that I don’t get upset by them.
This fire was different, though. It moved hundreds of percentage points faster than anyone predicted. The fire arrived in town in minutes when it should have taken hours. Some people had to flee burning buildings, and not because they overstayed evacuation orders, but because there simply hadn’t been time to send any. For the first time in my life, I thought that there was a very good chance that my childhood home would burn to the ground.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of running from a natural disaster. Growing up next to the sea means I learned early on that nature can be unforgiving, and so I think I’d caught glimpses of the feeling before. The panic that pools in my stomach when I try to swim through a massive ocean wave, racing so that it doesn’t break on top of me, is the closest comparison I can make. It’s a lack of control. It’s the absolute and terrifying certainty that nature doesn’t care if you live or die. When I’m swimming or surfing or doing any number of adrenaline-pumping activities, the feeling is thrilling. When I’m in my car racing away from a fiery hellscape, it’s less fun. By a lot.
I think that feeling is why, when I was driving around town to take footage of the damage wrought by the Thomas Fire, I nearly started crying. I didn’t expect to feel so emotional. My house is fine, I thought. Every person in town is safe, so why is this so upsetting to me? What right do I have to feel so personally affected by a disaster that left me unscathed?
I've felt like this for much of 2017. All around me, I've seen horrible things happening to other people. From countless awful acts from the Trump administration to major natural disasters, so many people both in my life and around the country have been oppressed, hurt, and killed. I've been shielded from most of the harm, since I hold quite a few privileged identities. Yet I still found myself feeling so much pain a lot of the time. Even though I wasn't personally hurt as an individual, my communities suffered. At first, I beat myself up for feeling pained, since I had it so much better than most other people. I didn't believe that my feelings were justified.
And then I realized that this could only be true if I didn't have any empathy, and if the health of my communities didn't matter to me. The cultures of capitalism and white supremacy teach us to be highly individualistic, to such an extreme that we isolate ourselves. In this culture we are taught to believe that our own wellbeing is completely distinct from the wellbeing of our community, which just isn't true. When other people hurt, we should hurt, too. That's human.
So I'm letting this experience burn. I'm letting it hurt. Only then can any of us heal.