Thank You to My Everyday Heroes (Phoenix in the Fire)

“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

-Gandalf

The fires are still burning; the west is still awash in flames and blackened embers. And yet, with this devastation, a phoenix was born, rising from the ashes that fell from our skies. I have found hope and love in a world that has gone dark. I found a common urgency for kindness and community as our fears grew. Yes, the fires still burn, and yet our hope has not been extinguished.

California, Oregon, Washington, Montana; all are ablaze and in desperate need of help. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the acreage lost to the actively burning fires stands at 1,652,402- and this number continues to grow every day. That’s not the total for the year thus far; that is simply the large scale fires that are still burning.

I’m in the Pacific Northwest where we are still fighting the Eagle Creek fire on the Oregon side, which has consumed over 33,000 acres of land in the scenic Gorge area. I have friends who were evacuated from their homes a week ago and don’t know when they will ever be able to return. My dad’s house was threatened by a spot fire that erupted when an ember flew from Eagle Creek and landed on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It landed on the same night my dad stayed awake with a hose protecting his home from the embers that fell where he lived. Archer mountain, 4 miles from my childhood home, was dry as a bone and lit up the sky. It’s still burning. It’s tiny in comparison to Eagle Creek; a mere 209 acres at the last update. But it was in my backyard, and when your neighborhoods are being threatened; it doesn’t matter how small that threat may appear; it’s still a natural entity that has more than enough power to consume and destroy everything you care about.

That first day was terrifying; the fire kept growing, the evacuation alerts kept coming, and the damn wind would not stop blowing. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of the fire itself barging down the door- I was afraid of the live embers that were dancing through the air for miles around and erupting into spot fires where they landed. I was terrified of losing my neighborhood, the place that stored all of my fondest memories of the world when it was far less complicated. I was scared of losing my childhood home; the only place that ever truly made me feel like I belonged in it. But most of all, I was petrified because my dad is stubborn as hell, knows enough about fires to be confident (he’s worked for the fire department for over 30 years), and he didn’t want to leave his home. He lives at the end of a dead-end street out in the middle of nowhere; and if the fire came, it’s projected route would cut off his only exit if he hesitated too long.

There’s something insidious in the simple fact that there are situations where you will have no control. There is something poisonous in the knowledge that for those life-altering moments, you might only have enough power to watch the news reports, to follow the weather and pray. This is something our poor friends in Texas and Florida know well. You might have to go to work and explain to your boss why you can’t really concentrate and why you are checking your phone every five minutes, or why you are jumping at unexpected noises- you will explain that you set up evacuation alerts to let you know if your dad needs to leave his home- to let you know that you need to make him leave. That powerless feeling; it burrows deep into your soul; you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t think or talk about anything else. You function under the sole motivation to collect more information. Because collecting is the only thing you can do. It’s a cruel twist of fate for us humans who have a deep desire to play the puppet-master of our own lives. So you pray- you pray to anything and everything you have ever believed in. Because what else will you do?

We’ve had good news this week; our first responders are amazing- there are truly no words for the appreciation and love we all feel towards them right now. They have been everything; our sun, our moon, our stars. They remind me why we all wanted to be like them when we were little; they remind me why heroes claim the name that they do. They saved our homes, they saved this little community of ours. They dug in their heels, they gritted their teeth and they fought with every ounce of energy they possessed. They fell asleep where they sat- for only a few hours before getting up and doing it all over again. It’s because of them that my friends still have their homes. It’s because of them that my dad’s home is still here. It was their hard work that allowed a young mother to finally bring her children back home after their evacuation alert was lowered. It’s because of them that I can finally start to breathe a little bit easier. The fire has grown; but they held the line and ensured that it didn’t grow towards our homes. Since the last time I wrote, they’ve managed to reach 15% containment on Archer Mountain. That’s pretty amazing, given the terrain and less than ideal weather. They’ve been stretched so thin that there are fire burning in our state without crews attached to them- because they can’t afford to sacrifice the resources. They’ve been here fighting for us instead.

There was a shift in the wind that was good for my little piece of the Gorge; but bad for my friends across the river. They have just shy of 1,000 firefighters on their side, including several hotshot teams (think navy seals of the firefighting world), over 100 engines and a small fleet of helicopters; they sit at 7% contained, and expect to be fighting this blaze through October at least. They’ve done an amazing job; over 33,000 acres, and only 3 homes lost. I know I say that like it’s nothing, but I can feel the shot through my heart with those words. 3 homes; 3 homes like mine full of memories and beloved items; a symbol for your life, a safe place that you will struggle to find again. Every loss hurts. Because we’re all here enduring this together; every loss is a reminder that all it takes is a change in the wind or an errant ember to drastically alter our fates and the lots of the things we love. We walk a hairs width out here, but we walk it together. And we have the bravest warriors to protect us. I say only 3 because without these brace souls with their spot-streaked faces, we would have lost entire towns. They did that for us.

There is something that arises from the darkness that we endure; there is a quality in all of us that only seems to show in these moments of distress. While there are still some who will take advantage of the darkness, ones who will do horrible things; like stealing the vehicles and gear of our firefighters- these lost souls are rare. Most people come together, remembering what is important at the end of the day. All of our differences and disagreements fall away. None of it matters anymore when you walk into your personal hell, you cling to anyone near you; even if you were shooting daggers at one another the day before. The world has gone on around us; the news reminds me everyday of the battles we are all waging, the ideologies we are fighting for, the hopes that we cling to. But for just a moment; those things don’t matter- they do- but, our different don’t matter. People don’t ask you who you voted for when you are reaching out for help. They don’t wonder what you posted on Facebook an hour ago, unless you were begging for an update on a loved one, or looking for a place to stay the night. My daily interactions now include people asking and volunteering information about themselves, their homes and their families. It’s found in the traditionally cut-throat litigators at work asking for a continuance on their case because opposing counsel has been focused on protecting his family and his home, which are on level 2 evacuation notices (level 2 means ‘get set’ and be ready for level 3- 3 means go now).

I found hope in places I didn’t expect it, from people I didn’t necessarily see as being as selfless as they were. This is probably a flaw of mine that I need to work on. On the first day a girl I knew who wouldn’t be caught dead out of her designer clothes and makeup was driving up and down the evacuation zones helping people get their livestock to safety. Neighbors would show up to help each other with trailers in tow. So many items were donated that they were running out of places to store them. At some sites simple things like coffee turned into gold. Businesses offered free food to emergency responders and those displaced. People you hadn’t talked to in nearly a decade would reach and ask how you were- because they remember where your parents lived when you were friends back in school. Strangers spoke words of comfort and compassion to me; they shared the stories of those impacted and brought an overlooked issue to people’s attention. I will forever be grateful. People cared. People helped. And they still are.

It’s just like what we saw with Harvey; when it mattered, we showed up. We reminded each other what we are truly about. When everything is done, I am sure we will go back to squabbling about politics and debating lifestyle choices and generally causing discontent on social media. But there will still be this experience between us; these common things that we endured together. We will still remember those unexpected heroes who showed up when we were in need, the ones that remembered where we were from and took the time to listen when we were scared. Personally, I will try to remember that most people are made of tougher stuff than I realized. We found a small patch of common ground; it might be burnt, and blackened, but it is still our ground, it is still the path we have walked together.

Tonight I pray for everyone who’s struggling, who’s fighting, who’s scared. Tonight I pray for our first responders and our everyday heroes who just showed up. I pray for the west with our fires, for Texas who has a long road to recovery, and for everyone being impacted by Irma. I pray for India and the flooding they’ve been fighting. We might be facing different foes; but it’s the same battle. No matter how far apart we are, no matter what we each believe; we are all in this together. We are stronger when we stand as one, when we reach out, when we put our differences aside and look at each other as humans. I will never turn away, I’m still watching, and when the moment comes- my hand will be reaching out to help you the way others have helped me. Thank God for these everyday heroes; they are the best we could ever hope to become. I strive everyday to live up to what they do.

Praying for Rain in the Pacific Northwest (another modern day apocalypse)

This beautiful green haven I call home is burning down. We are choking on smoke and watching as the physical reminders of our past and our adventures sail away on the wind, nothing more than ash when it departs. My home, this place that I have spent my whole life, is awash in flames. We are fighting; our first responders are working tirelessly, using every method available to save the gorge. But we don’t know how long it will take or what we will lose in the midst of this battle.

A forest fire is burning 4 miles from my dad’s home. Yesterday I spent my day driving through the smoke and the ash to get there. I went through my childhood home to determine what was worth saving and what wasn’t. Something you never realize until you are in that situation: very few things actually matter at that point. You grow numb, clinical. You have to if you want to get the job done, if you want to find the family photo albums and the afghan your great grandmother made that used to sit on your favorite chair in your bedroom. You will not cry about the baby ornaments and childhood stuffed animals; you won’t cry about the knee-high carved bear you named Otis- the one that stood sentinel over your front door and was dressed up for every holiday; you won’t think about the memories and keepsakes you left behind until later. No, you will not cry, not now.

But eventually the totality of the situation will strike you, eventually you will feel it all. You will cry; in a few hours, in a day, in a week- it will hit you, what you had to do; you had to take a lifetime of memories and condense them down into a little box. You had to get in the car and leave behind everything you ever worked for. You turn your back on your home and wonder if it will be the last time. You flee the only place that you ever truly felt safe- because it can’t be that anymore. You ache and you hurt, but you put your foot on the accelerator, you square your jaw and you drive. Nothing has ever felt like home since I left there; no house has lived up to that name. It will always be my home, the place I grew up, the sanctuary where I keep my heart tucked away.

I went to my dad’s house and talked about evacuation plans. I forced promises about timeframes and warning signals, routes and procedures, back-up plans and defensible spaces. Because he wasn’t ready to leave, not until he had to. In that moment; I didn’t give a damn about the house. I would individually burn every single picture myself if it would guarantee his safety. He’s a firefighter; he knows this world, he belongs to it. Fires are in his blood, and this is his home. He wasn’t scared; the fire hadn’t jumped the ridge yet- he was still safe. His home was still safe.

The night before he was outside with a hose spraying down the house as ashes and burning embers fell from the sky. He had sprinklers going on the roof. He even managed to jury-rig the pump from the pond to keep the sprinklers on even if we lost power. He took every precaution to ensure that the house had a defensible space, should that need arise. Those aren’t words you ever want to hear. The argument about leaving is not one you ever want to fight. Not while the smoke is burning your lungs, not while the ashes are falling around you, not while you pack up the car with those few things you don’t want to lose.

My heart is breaking. I can’t stay away from the news, hoping for an update as the fire grows. I’m deciphering wind reports like they contain the secret to the universe. I’m scared. That’s what this is; I’m scared and I’m broken inside because this is my home; these forests are my memories, these trails are where I grew up. These people are my past. And for me: this is real. This is the fear that we all pray we will never experience. Your home is supposed to keep you safe. But what do you do when you can’t keep it safe?

I watched my neighbors calmly pack their horses, their pets, their belongings into whatever trailers they could get their hands on. I watched them drive away, hoping they would be able to come back.

I’m angry and I’m hurt; this whole thing started because of a couple teenagers playing with firecrackers. The first day 153 hikers were trapped on Eagle Creek trail. They had to shelter near a waterfall overnight. The next morning they had to hike 14 miles to get out. Every single one was rescued. We got lucky. But the fire kept burning. An entire town was evacuated. And then another, and then then another as the flames burned out of control, taking this beautiful country with it.

Monday night it did something that sent shockwaves through my soul; it jumped the Columbia river and nestled itself within Washington’s borders- quite a feat by its own right. At 2:00 in the morning, while my dad was running around putting out embers that had managed to burn all the way to his home; four miles away one of those embers fell from the sky and landed on a wooded mountain. It caught. The flames grew, and people were forced from their homes without warning in the dead of night.

Two states are on fire because a couple of 15 year olds didn’t understand that it’s bad to play with fire in the woods during a dry summer. It seems every time I check the reports, I’m hearing of a new area being threatened, another place I’ve been in gone. Wildfires live up to their name; they are not easily tamed, no matter how hard you work.

These are a few pictures of Oneonta Tunnel, a historic tunnel that was originally built for vehicle use back in 1914. It had since been reopened for pedestrian use only and is along a hike I did with friends a few months ago. The bottom photos are what it looked like that day I was there. The upper right photo is the night that it burned. The upper left is the charred remains. It’s gone, and so are the beautiful forests that surrounded it.

So far, in spite of all of our losses, we are lucky. We are fortunate because of the men and women who have responded to our calls for help. They have come out and they have worked without complaint. My dad’s house is still safe as I write this because of the 75 men and women who have held the fire line at bay and protected us. It is safe because of the people out on patrol for spot fires that they can extinguish before they take root. I am thankful. I can never repay this debt.

Our amazing and historic Multnomah falls and lodge are still standing because of the tireless efforts of these people- many of them volunteered to help.

this is a picture before the fire; few photos are circulating of what it looks like now. All reports describe a tough battle that the firefighters ultimately won. I hear there is even still some green left, a phenomenal fear, given what they were up against.

They have been doing an amazing job against a tremendous foe. We are sad for what has been lost, but without them our pain would be far greater. So to them I say thank you. From the bottom of this grieving heart, I say thank you. My dad is a firefighter, I understand that sacrifice, I understand the struggles of your family. And today I finally understand the people on the other side; today I am one of them.

To my beautiful home; I’m sorry. There will be more memories, there will be recovery. Thank you for what you gave us. Thank you for this beautiful place I have been privileged to call home. I’m crying for you.

If you’ve ever watched the movie ‘Wild’- this last picture might look familiar. The Bridge of the Gods in where it ended; watch those last scenes again- it will be many years before it looks like that once more.

This is not how I remember you; full of fire and heartache. To all of my beautiful places; I know some are gone, I know some still stand, and others I have yet to hear about…you’ve helped me soothe my soul more times than I can count…you are my home, forever and always. This is how I will always remember you…