The Thomas Fires

The Thomas Fires in Ventura - sky view on Tuesday

We’d had spotty electricity all day due to an automobile accident up the street taking out a power line, so when the lights started flickering back on and off Monday evening my son and I figured maintenance was still in progress. The sound of helicopters in the distance were a bit non-standard, but we still tucked in and went to sleep anyway – not knowing that the Thomas fires now ravaging the area were the new reason for the outages. It wasn’t until the sun peeked up and shone a blood-red glow into my bedroom that I realized things had gone seriously sideways while we slumbered.

Natural disasters really touch a part of you that’s not normal, not standard. The feeling has gotten a bit foreign in recent years, so what I’m feeling today is certainly not of the normal variety.

I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia outside Washington D.C., where the occasional tornado warnings were a regular occurance.  My family got used to hunkering down with candles in the basement while the winds swirled around the neighborhood, but were always fortunate enough to not be struck directly by one of the massive, turbulent funnels.

After moving to California, earthquakes became the new norm.  I recall being in finals after my first semester at Musician’s Institute and everything started shaking so hard that the seams between the room walls split and I could see the whites of terror-filled eyes on the other side staring back at me.  Although the shaking only lasted about a minute, I didn’t come down from the adrenaline rush for the rest of the day.  My studio apartment behind Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood survived reasonably well, with only bookshelves and wall hangings flung about – no instrument or keepsake damage whatsoever.

But I’ve gotta say, even being in close proximity to a monstrously-huge, uncontained fire being blown by brutal Santa Ana winds is a whole new level of adrenaline and focus.  After waking up yesterday and realizing the Thomas fires were burning 30 minutes east of me in Ventura, I first attempted to go about my day as usual. However, I realized quickly it would be anything but usual.

By 8am the LinkedIn Carpinteria offices were already filling up with displaced families in various states of sleep and casual wear, weary and distraught from their mid-night exodus.  The rising sun was a blood-red orb in the sky, constantly reminding me of the brutal reality Mother Nature was wreaking on the Southlands.  And the air quickly began burning the back of my throat with ash and smoke.  It was certainly not normal by any stretch of the word.

For the Thomas fires to spark this week was particularly poignant given the entire team I work with was in town from our various remote locations for annual strategy meetings scheduled to start at 9am that morning.  However, all meetings were quickly canceled, remote employees booking return flights to free up hotel rooms to provide temporary lodging and shelter from the burn for displaced local employees. Seeing the faces of those stranded amidst the local chaos far from home try to maintain composure and calm was chilling and humbling.

We all pitched in to help those from the burn area find places to huddle and try to regain some sense of family composure.  And as my hands became busy, my mind began to reflect on life – and what’s truly important.

It really is the little things in life that make all the difference.  That make everything worthwhile.

The main thing on my mind was my son.  He had stayed the night with me and was dropped off at school as per usual, but even though the classes were proceeding as normal yesterday his smile haunted me.  I wondered – completely irrationally at that – if it would be the last time I’d see it.  I thought of plans should the fires rush towards Carpinteria during the morning, how I could snatch him quickly away from the campus if things got ugly.  Picking him up again at school that afternoon gave me a sense of relief and centeredness I didn’t realize had slipped away from me.

I thought deeply about my own family scattered about the globe, and what they might be thinking at the time.  Although I didn’t feel I was in immediate danger, I immediately started considering my plans for reaching out as soon as cell and network connections became reliable again (also spotty throughout the morning).

I busied myself with reaching out to remote colleagues in town and making sure that they felt safe and supported away from their own homes and families.

And I realized that the trappings we surround ourselves with, the things and stuff and possessions that seem so vital to our lives really weren’t worth anything at all at the end of the day.  Deciding which of my instruments would come with me in event of emergency was now a quick decision.  I realized that a small bag of clothes and provisions could be put together in the fraction of the time I usually take to get ready for an average day at the office.

It’s those thoughts that I’m stuck with today, as the fire enters its second day without containment, and begins to creep closer.  Not my safety, not my escape plan, but how little the material things in my life really matter aside from my son and friends and family.

I’m currently in an odd state of balance between determined action in helping prepare myself and help those around me, while also acknowledging and mourning the losses that so many have already weathered.  I know that I’ll be fine no matter what happens, but the tragedy of the situation in contrast to the stark reality of the real priorities in my own life is a bit humbling at the moment.

So for today, I wish you all health, happiness and stability in a world that often doesn’t provide those for us.  I prize my family and friends among all else.  And I’m grateful for the reality check amidst a year that’s made me often focus too much on myself and what I thought I really needed around me.

Turns out it wasn’t nearly as much as I’d assumed.  And despite my sadness and grief at the loss the Thomas fires are causing, I’m grateful for the level-setting it’s forcing on me, as well. It’s burned down a few more walls I didn’t realize I had around myself.

Be healthy, well, and safe, y’all.