- Sitting in my chair in the living room, out of the window I can see the branches and fulsome leaves of the oaks and crepe myrtle trees as they sweep back and forth, revealing the wind that has been carrying the flames and scattering embers to ignite the Thomas Fire and sending the material tokens and touchstones of lives to oblivion. Firefighters decided to call it the Thomas Fire, because it began close to Thomas Aquinas College, just a few miles from my home in the Upper Ojai valley.
The winds right now are not frantic, as they have been at times, but they are confused, darting from one direction to another, remarkably mirroring my wife’s mood. Each sweeping movement of the branches injects an ounce of fear, it seems, into the normally placid mornings in Ojai.
I should not be writing right now, but instead I should be dressed and outside vigilantly scanning for spot fires, raking leaves and clearing debris that could ignite and spark the flames that could consume our homes and our tokens. I should be a better protector than I am. But I am slow to wake up, slow to meet danger, slow in my body and mind.
… So slow, in fact, that it has now been nearly a week since I wrote those words, a week in which I have discovered that a dozen friends and acquaintances have lost their homes, including one that borders my own property. We have lost two structures—outbuildings, including a yurt that I recently fashioned into a framing studio for my photographs and a horse barn that has not seen a horse in at least 25 years. Compared to many of my friends, we have escaped significant damage, but somehow feeling grateful in that context seems sinful and unkind.
Our children have become the heroes they always were—our son in particular working tirelessly to help others as he protected his own homestead, our daughter leaving the safety of Los Angeles to join us and do her part. My wife is the heroine she too has always been, caring for our children in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine. And I have been doing my best to care for them, although I feel inadequate in my somewhat compromised health right now, and slightly guilty that I am writing these words from a patio in a luxury hotel in Pasadena where we escaped for better air. Angelinos reading this will sense the irony, because Pasadena is known for its poor air quality, but now it is a refuge from the toxic particulates that hide even in what otherwise might appear to be clear air in the fire area.
I recently read a story about Thomas Aquinas in which he drove off a prostitute sent from his family to “dissuade” him from joining the Dominican order by breaking his vow of celibacy. He drove her off with a fire iron. The threat of destruction by fire is indeed a potent force, another reminder that each of our existences are temporary gifts of resistance to the eternal, in which all eventually turns to ash.