On December 4, 2017, the Thomas fire began devouring 273,400 acres in a destructive march across the very dry hills of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. For weeks the fire raged. We could hardly breathe. The ash on our patio, just 10 miles from the Montecito flames, was 2 inches thick. Masks were a constant requirement, not just any mask, but the NIOSH N95 respirator. This ash and smoke were deadly. The front-page headline in The Los Angeles Times on December 22, 2017 read, “Thomas Fire Becomes the Largest Wildfire Recorded in California.” We were in a living hell.
Santa Barbara homes and hotels became refuges for evacuated families from Ventura. Families came with cats, dogs and maybe a few clothes. There was no time to pack. Daily news conferences shared the blackened landscapes and the burned rubble, but no containment. Details of lost homes and devastation were shown in full color in newspapers and TV. I received daily calls and emails from friends around the globe. Was I in the fire? Was I OK?
I paid close attention to the news and reports, watching fire equipment whizzing by from all over California. We were all ready to help. I wanted to do something.
I noticed many residents did not have masks. My fireman dad had warned me about dangers of breathing air around fire. Store shelves were empty. No masks. We drove to Atascadero hoping to buy some. We came back with a shopping bag full and started handing them out to friends, in churches, at Trader Joe’s and from our car window to random pedestrians. This simple kindness of offering a mask opened the floodgates of stories and I listened. It was my little way of coming alongside and letting them know I cared. I said very little, I just listened and offered a simple, “I am so sorry.” Other times I just stopped and asked people I passed in the store or on the sidewalk if they were affected by the fire. This always led to a conversation. I learned that you can spread peace just by being present, even amidst all the chaos and turmoil around you. Listen to your instincts, join together, thank the first responders, be open to the moment. The fire turned strangers into friends and we became one caring community.
The evacuation order was finally lifted and those who had homes returned just three days before Christmas. My friend hung her worn masks on the family Christmas tree, and texted a photo of it with the message “We’re home and safe.” We rejoiced and hoped that we’d be able to rebuild and move forward.
However, at 3:30am, Jan. 9th, we were awakened by the sound of very heavy rain. It just kept coming, almost an inch every 15 minutes, a torrential downpour, one month after the fire. The deadly mudslides came quickly to the quiet village of Montecito, home to more than 9,000. Streets filled with monstrous boulders, wrecked cars, and downed trees. I started texting friends and found out they had been evacuated by helicopter. Our prayers began as we were glued to the TV. Twenty people died and 500 homes damaged or destroyed.
This was a collective problem and right at our doorstep. Disaster fatigue was everywhere but no one gave up. First responders kept searching, hoping to find the missing. The 101 Freeway was closed from Ventura through Montecito, filled with mud, rocks, slush and smashed cars.
Hundreds were evacuated to hotels. On the way home from a meeting, my intuition urged me to go to the Hilton in Goleta where many of the evacuees were. I arrived and walked in thinking, “I hope I can bring some peace by being here.” There they were in the lobby. All I said was, “I’m here,” and through their tears their nightmare was relived.
“You will never know how bad it really was. We were pulled out of a window and helicoptered to safety. My brother’s home is gone and ours is filled with mud. My son will never forget what he saw. The TV news can’t show how bad it really is,” a victim shared.
I listened and heard their trauma unfold before me. Asking, “What can I do? What do you need?” brought heartfelt requests, such as, “Could you please go to the store with my list of items we need now? I only have the clothes I was wearing when we left.”
Their healing began as I listened. “Peace begins with me and starts with a conversation” has been my tagline for my book and workshops. Never before though, have I seen the healing power of conversation as I did that afternoon.
#805Strong was our hashtag and the spirit that took us through the next days. 1500 people shared the healing power of community at an evening meeting at the Sunken Gardens behind the Santa Barbara Courthouse. The music, prayers, the words of our elected officials and chants by our clergy and candles brought us together. I have heard it said that during times of crisis, peace has the greatest chance to take root and transform. I saw it with my own eyes that evening. Peace is possible and let it begin with us. In Church, I shared how I listened and encouraged others to do the same. “Go where you are needed.” We were asked to tell the person next to us that we loved them. The closeness we felt to each other at that moment was transcending.
The freeway is finally open. I continue to talk with friends and strangers, asking, “Are you affected by the fire, the flood?” Everyone was and has a story to tell for a moment of sharing and caring. Life is going on, but these lessons will remain in my heart forever. From this tragedy, I learned that when we are present we become the peace others need.