Notes from the Southwest Corner: Finalities

October 2007, Column 2. Here’s my second weekly column for The Lebanon Democrat. It’s hard to believe it was 14 years ago, harder yet to believe i haven’t been home for more than two years. Yet i still remember standing at the top of my hill with other neighbors watching that fire, trying to determine if its route would impact us, and having our daughter wake us to see Mount Miguel in flames. That’s when we left and moved to Coronado to stay with our good friends, Peter and Nancy Toennies for one night. Fortunately, we have not had that experience again although wildfires are even more a threat now than they were then. The Southwest corner has its fires and earthquakes, but there are natural and man made disasters everywhere. You just have to choose your poison.

SAN DIEGO, CA – This second weekly column has been tough to write.

In a rare exception from my usual pell-mell, last minute throw-it-together mode of operation, I followed the tenets of making any worthy task a success. I determined the desired outcome as I started; I outlined the important steps and created a timeline for completing those steps; I gathered notes and resources and researched needed missing pieces.

Then came the fires.

I tried to stick to my plan and to my regimen. The fire had a different plan, however. It preoccupied my every sense for three days, even though I only briefly felt true concern for my family or my home. Even if I could have eliminated the overbearing presence from heat, smell, smoke, ash, news reports, incoming phone calls checking on us, or outgoing ones checking on others, the fires pervaded every sensible thought I tried to have on other topics.

This is my sixth start on this column. I wanted to write about connections and memories and good stuff. I am compelled to write about the fires.

The devastation and the impact here is mind boggling. Fortunately, the only thing to keep this past week in Southern California from being worse than Katrina is the number of deaths. Only seven deaths have been reported so far.

The fires desolated over 750 square miles. More than half a million people were evacuated. In San Diego alone, over 1400 homes were destroyed. On a local news program, it was revealed we were literally seconds away from cutting power to large numbers of residents during the middle of the crisis.

Returning from our evacuation, we must sort what we packed willy-nilly and place them back from whence they came. We must clean ash on and in the home without the benefit of water, blowers, or vacuums (from a call to conserve water and energy). The fires have put us behind in our usual tasks and added significantly to the list.

As I started on those five other columns, I attempted to escape the fires. Early this morning, I realized I needed some closure.

Of all of the horrible statistics of devastation and costs and of all of the reports of bravery, kindness, futility, anger, meanness, selfishness, and the other aspects of human nature, I have been most intrigued with a whole bunch of people, including me, dealing with finality.

Many people dealt with the prospect of finality in many different ways.

There’s an old adage about living every day as if it were going to be your last. Yet most of the three million people in San Diego County refused to believe it was their last day. 

Many ignored the evacuation orders and stayed behind. Some decided they did not trust the government to do its job. Some thought their presence would protect their homes. Some refused to leave their pets and livestock. Some valued their possessions more than life itself.

Learning from the 2003 fires, the ordered evacuations were more successful this time. One of the reasons was most of the evacuation centers in 2003 did not allow pets. With no where to go without their pets, people refused to evacuate. This time, the evacuation centers allowed pets as much as possible and had pet care built into the evacuation plans.

Of the half million who chose to put more days between them and finality, there were also many diverse reasons for doing so, and many different ways of going about it.

Some panicked and simply left seeking shelter somewhere. Some had planned thoroughly beforehand and methodically carried their plan out. Some like our family had pieces of the plan in place and tried to stay ahead of the curve, tried to make wise choices based on the information at hand and assessing the risks and benefits.

I experienced dealing with finality as I chose what to take and not take with us on our departure. It put some different priorities on what is important when we returned home.

I suspect the thoughts of finality will fade quickly for those who escaped home loss like us. We are already re-prioritizing without consideration of this possibly being our final day. 

Most of us who have gone through this twice take a little bit more learning away this time. Finality is closer to home.

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