by Shandra McClanahan

What does home mean to you?

 I admit, I did not think about this until I was at risk of losing mine.

On June 1st, 2018, after having been home from vacation for less than 36 hours, the 416 fire began just over a mile from our home.  My boyfriend of 5 years called me at work to let me know, but I dismissed it. There had been several small fires in the area over the past few years, they were typically quickly dealt with.  But driving home directly into a smoke stack that I can only describe as volcanic changed my outlook. Victor and I watched as the pre evacuation lines moved further and further south. Our neighbors packed what things they could and I walked my dog through a ghost town everyday.  Until finally, it was our turn.

I had always heard of pre evacuation and thought, “Those people must be so glad that they can stay.”  And I was. But it is a much more insidious process than I could have ever realized. The task was simple enough, be ready to leave at a moments notice.  But how can a person live over weeks, or months even (we are still on pre evacuation) while being ready to leave? We packed up what things would be worth saving (houseplants, art and the video game consoles) and sent them away with the still surprising number of truly quality people we have managed to accumulate in our lives.  We prepared pet carriers, filled buckets with water for around the house, set out the hoses for quick access, and backed into our carport for a quick get away. And then we waited. And waited.

I was new to the idea of background stress.  For almost a decade I had worked a highly stressful corporate job complete with restless hotel stays and 14 hour shifts.  But now I had found my dream job, no stress, just fair work for a company I loved and people that felt like family. Despite this life altering good fortune, I was terrified to leave my house in the morning.  I kept the truck loaded with my necessities, but what if they evacuated us and I couldn’t get back in to get the animals? What if we couldn’t find a place to stay with them? How long would we have to be gone?  My work days were harried, constantly checking updates from reliable sources, and most days I left in a near state of panic. Everyday I drove home the smoke column was bigger. That is, when we could see.

The smoke was relentless.  Many mornings we couldn’t see the neighbors house.  We registered a 519 on the purple air scale that goes from 1-500.  The idea of allergies now seemed laughable as we all suffered from respiratory problems and could not exert ourselves in any way.  Our water kept getting shut off for repairs, my garden straight up refused to grow, and to wrap it all up, we had sent away the things I filled my “real life” with.  

Victor and I spent our evening hours sitting on the roof, sharing video clips of the flames easily visible from the house, towers of smoke and the only thing that rained was ash.  A charred caterpillar landed on my porch one evening. Helicopters flew low over our home, shaking the windows and terrifying my poor border collie, from sunup to sundown. We plastered the outside of our home with gratitude to firefighters.  No I don’t believe in miracles, but I do believe in firefighters. Not a single home was harmed by the 416 fire.

Unfortunately though, they were not trained to help with my mental health.  Horrible arguments erupted in an otherwise peaceful and happy relationship, featuring such fun topics as “are we allowed to open the windows?” “can the cats go outside?” and “Does the AC push in more smoke?”  I turned down invites that I am sure would have done me good for little more reason than the absolute fear of leaving unnecessarily, to say nothing of the unfathomable consequences of a hangover in these circumstances.  But don’t worry, we survived. And we learned about the need for sanctuary, stability, and home.

On July 31st, after burning 54,000 acres, the fire was 100% contained.  And then the flooding began.

As a person who lives for mountain thunderstorms, I have gone through another unasked for attitude adjustment.  Despite having been robbed of an official monsoon season, we live in constant fear of the isolated thunderstorm.  In less than 10 minutes of decent rain, our irrigation ditches fill with smokey black mostly-mud and it begins to spill over our roads and down into our yards.  Victor and I don our raincoats, grab our shovels and run out to help our neighbors try to divert the flood waters from vulnerable homes and landscapes. Our home is at less risk, being surrounded by a brick wall and sitting on blocks.  Kids, never let them tell you there is no advantage to living in a trailer.

In the end, as we purchase sandbags and prepare our landscaping for what may in fact be years of flood damage to come, we find that our home has always been the sanctuary we needed.  Especially as we head further into the murky dark of a political system that seems content to let everyone feel the hate, home is sacred. I have taken up guitar (again) on my patio, we can once again host game nights and barbecues, and my home can once again be the place there will always be plenty of food for everyone. The damage to our wilderness will take years to recover as we have seen with the missionary ridge burn area, but as most of us understand, fire is important.  It cleanses, balances and invigorates. Sound like a solution to some other things? I think so too.