Our New Normal

Even if you don’t live here, you might know about the wildfires we’re experiencing in California this year. And last year. And the year before. Unfortunately, it’s our new normal. And that sucks. Some of my friends had to evacuate from their homes in hills where fire overtook hundreds of acres. Thankfully, nobody I know lost their home or their life.

Nature is unpredictable, especially these days. Not knowing when or if another fire will break out is stressful. Which direction will it travel? How many acres will it burn? How many homes will be destroyed? How many lives lost? Who knows. But one thing is certain: it will happen again.

I used to think people were crazy who feared living in California because of earthquakes. Seriously, how many earthquakes do we have (very few) compared to the devastation eastern and southern coastal states endure from yearly hurricanes and tornadoes? But with fires being an annual thing now, there may be reason to fear living here, especially near hills and mountains.

And that brings me to a few weeks ago as I drove down the freeway, griping to myself (as usual) when stopped in traffic. Freeway congestion that early in the day is rare so I figured I’d encounter an accident up the road. But as I crested the freeway incline, I spotted it — a cloud-like mass of billowing smoke floating above the hills near my home.

All I could do was watch in horror because the freeway was essentially a parking lot with looky-loos slowing down to looky-loo. I called my friend Sue to fill her in and as Sue does, she asked if there was anything she could do to help. “Just hope the wind doesn’t carry the fire downhill” was all I could say. It was a helpless feeling. And a tad scary.

Driving into my neighborhood, I was surprised to see people packing their cars. I thought, wow, this is really happening, isn’t it? A mile away, evacuations were under way, including a friend who lives at the base of the hillside just below the fire. The smell of smoke was in the air and ash floated down, covering our cars in a blanket of gray dust.

It was then I realized how unprepared I am for potential disaster. How would I round up 5 cats when a couple are semi-feral and virtually uncatchable in a pinch? Plus, I didn’t have enough carriers. (Shame on me.) Getting the dogs into the SUV wouldn’t be a problem but after everybody was in, would there be room for any other treasures?

In that moment of clarity, while a helicopter and plane dumped fire retardant over the approaching flames, I thought, what else should I take with me? And then it dawned on me that other than my pets, I would take little else. Now don’t get me wrong; I like my stuff. But it’s just stuff.

Having said that, I’m about to be hypocritical. Given the time, I’d grab my photo albums from 1960 to 2013 (when I went digital); some important documents; my computer; laptop; cell phone; and my mom’s jewelry.

If I were a weightlifter, I’d drag my beloved cedar chest downstairs, not only because it holds mementos that chronicle nearly my entire life, but because it belonged to my grandparents. Sadly, it weighs a ton so it would need to become a memory. Its contents, however, I would throw into boxes and hightail it out of there.

During an evacuation, I figure the best case scenario is escaping with my living treasures — my furry menagerie. Yes, it would be heartbreaking to leave behind so much else. But then, even though memories are intangible, we do take them with us. Best of all, we can always make more.

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