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Embers to Ashes

One minute you’re curling up with a cup of tea. The next you’re dashing for your life. When a wildfire howls up your hillside, instinct tells you just what to do: Drop the teacup and run.

But what if you had time to grab an armful of valuables? Or cram a crate full of them? Or even pack a whole car?

Whether you lost your home in the Tea Fire, or know someone who did — or came no closer than wringing your hands and recoiling at the smell of blazing, far-off neighborhoods in your nostrils — chances are you’ve done some recent pondering over your possessions.

I asked friends what they would save if devastation were pounding on their doors. Assuming kids, spouses, and pets were safe, the number one grab-and-go items were laptops and computer hard drives. They’re storehouses of our life’s work.

“I had no time to even think,” said a woman who evacuated during the Tea Fire. She was so flustered that she left behind a box of treasures she had packed long ago in case of fire. “But I did bring the computer because all of my daughter’s college essays and application work is on there, and to have to do it all again is unthinkable.”

Second on everyone’s lists: stuff that connects us to our past. “I made my husband crawl up into our attic to retrieve my wedding dress,” said a friend of mine. “I went to my hope chest and grabbed the kids’ artwork and report cards, and the love letters my husband has written to me throughout the years.”

Another local mom said she would snatch up her childhood home movies and — here’s a good one — her favorite recipe cards.

“Everybody talks about grabbing pictures of loved ones,” said another Tea Fire evacuee. “Why would I need pictures? I remember what my family looks like.” Instead, she stuffed a suitcase with a beret belonging to her late stepfather, a watch that her husband had custom made for her, a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle — and her makeup case. “If I had to lose my house and all my belongings,” she said, “at least I’d have six shades of lipstick.”

Sometimes we don’t realize what’s most important to us until crisis strikes. A close friend was amused by the two videos her husband packed during the Painted Cave Fire: one of their wedding, and one of an amazing UCSB basketball game.

“My friends and family found my choices hilarious,” admitted a local man who fled his newly built home in the 1994 Malibu fire. While state troopers stood outside shouting, “Get out now!” he glanced around at his brand-new furnishings and felt helpless to choose between them. “Suddenly all of these things seemed equal,” he said, “and in that equality, they also seemed worthless.” He left with only a comforter and pillows. “I suppose all I needed when I thought I would lose everything was just some comfort.”

A sense of duty informs our choices, too. “I was grading papers when we were told we should leave,” said an S.B. teacher. “I took all of my students’ papers with me.”

Disaster has a way of putting things into perspective. “Quite honestly, if it goes, it goes,” said a friend whose family home burned down when she was 10. Then the 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed her wedding china, wine collection, and “other precious items I had schlepped around the world.”

Loss lingers, said a grandmother who’s watched too many friends lose homes to fire. But it doesn’t prevail. “We find a way to move along,” she said, “and love what is to love in front of us.”

Published inColumns

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