What It’s Really Like To Prepare For Evacuation From The Southern California Wildfires

Joao Alves

The ash is the only snowfall you’ve ever seen. It relentlessly floats through the air; its billowy nature deceptive as it threatens to smother you. It invades your streets; a loiterer resistant to consequence, as, for the first time in your life, the asphalt fades to white in the midst of the blizzard.

The news is an omnipresent force, a blaring constant in the wake of uncertainty. As your world transforms into a dystopia overnight, it becomes your only savior, dictating your every decision. You’re safe, it claims — your only reassurance as you helplessly watch the world you know crumble and your state gradually erupt into flame.

Until the flames creep closer, menacingly threatening your security. All you can hear is the drone of the television. You’re safe, it whispers. You’re safe. But, as suddenly as you sigh out of relief for your safety, you begin shaking, hyperventilating as your only voice of hope sours. You’re in a warning zone. Prepare to evacuate, your former savior states, coldly, unremorsefully.

You attempt to numb yourself, steeling yourself against the reality of your fate. Instead of packing your valuables away, you binge on your vices, desperately attempting to make television your savior once more. You eat yourself into a stupor to try to forget the present, the briefly foregone past, everything you know. You let music cradle you to sleep, hoping your dreams will transport you to a world devoid of impending flame and monotonous news programs. You fervently hope that the flames, the embers, the charred remains of buildings are nothing but a nightmare, that any moment you will awaken to a sky no longer tinted a dull yellow and air no longer tinged with a thick blanket of smoke.

But the moment you awaken, reality strikes you, provoking your anxiety, immediately compelling you to action. This is real, you realize, as your heart races. Your breath falls quick and shallow, no longer a consequence of the smoky air, but rather, as a result of the sheer terror that grips you without warning and refuses to let go.

In your panicked freneticism, you flit around your bedroom, unable to make a list because your mind is a jumbled maze of rushed thoughts. Your unkempt, unremarkable room suddenly becomes an invaluable treasure trove of memories. How can you justify prioritizing the tangible remnants of the moments that have shaped you? You hastily gather every journal you have ever kept and toss them all into a pile, thankful that your memories will not become enveloped in flames.

The clutter surrounding you is precious. It is your memories, your life, and you will not allow it all to become extinguished in the wake of the fire. As you bundle up your prom dress, you relive the night that made you finally feel attractive, glamorous, beautiful. As you gather your grandfather’s socks and tie, you promise to always keep him in your memory, loved moly reminiscing on his kindness, his lust for life. As you search for your college degree, you are transported back to the struggles, the panic, the small victories, the swell of pride you felt on your graduation day. As you lay eyes on the stuffed animals that lined your bed in your childhood, you recall all the tears you shed as they silently consoled you. You wish they could offer you consolation now, any relief from the anxiety you feel, but nothing can quell the storm inside of you.

Your panic amplifies as you hurriedly scoop up all your jewelry and realize that you can no longer find the necklace your grandmother made you. You want nothing more than to prevent the flames from engulfing your most precious memory of her. The thought of your prized possessions enshrouded in ash makes you cry — quiet tears that devolve into loud, heaving sobs. Everything you take for granted — the roof over your head, your shelter, your security, the shrine to your memories — up in flames. You imagine starting over with nothing but a fading memory of the life the flames destroyed, and you are immediately awash with sorrow at the prospect of losing everything.

But, as you frantically pray to any God who will hear you in your desperation, you are struck with a resounding gratitude for all that surrounds you. Your bedroom is a haven from the outside world. Your kitchen is a source of sustenance. Your living room is a place of laughter and bonding. Your house is a home, a sanctuary of life and love. And, as you rediscover the gentle evenness of your breath, the pulsing sensation of your beating heart, you realize that you are here, now, to appreciate it all. Your vitality, your ability to experience the comforts of home, the simple joys of love and laughter, is the greatest gift you possess.

You are still terrified for the future, relentlessly worried about what’s to come. But you are here, alive even in the wake of the fire, and that’s all that matters. TC mark

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