10 Tips for Moving On: A Wildfire Survival Story
There is no question that our attitudes and perceptions of life events have impact upon our health and well-being. There are times in life, from which there is no escape from stress. How we heal from stress is paramount to our immune system, cardiovascular system, as well as our mental health. So here’s our story:
For the past 18 years we have greatly enjoyed living in our home in beautiful Sunshine Canyon, in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado. It has been our quiet haven and sanctuary surrounded by hundreds of majestic pine trees. The start of Labor Day of 2010 found us in our pajamas, talking with friends on the phone, reading the paper, lounging into a lazy Monday, which held no commitments or obligations. Feeling like a couple of kids playing hooky, the day stretched out before us with the goal of mastering the art of doing nothing. And then everything changed, and very quickly.
About noon, we spoke with our neighbor Betty, who had heard from the fire marshal’s wife that there was a huge wild fire raging up the backside of Bald Mountain and headed right for our home. We had to get out now! We had about twenty minutes to grab what seemed to be the most important: each other, dog, cat, computers, a few old family photos, a suit case into which was thrown a couple of t-shirts, sweat pants and some toiletries. By the time we got into our cars, the smell of fire was thick, ash was falling from the sky, and a dark haze of smoke blocked the sun.
Our hearts raced as we drove down Sunshine Canyon to a checkpoint that had already been set up by the county. They were counting residents, making sure that everyone was out, that there were no animals left in homes that would need rescuing. By the time we got through the check point our friend, Jennifer called the cell phone telling us that she was watching the fire on the news and to please come to her home to stay as long as needed, dog, cat and all.
Honestly it’s difficult to tell now why we felt relaxed. Maybe we assumed we would be going home in a few hours or at the worst, the next day. Were we slightly in shock? Perhaps Colorado’s worst wildfire in history that was burning in the canyon we called home was lulling us into an easy state of denial. We know every home, meadow and park in our canyon as we have walked through and passed them hundreds of times. We glued ourselves to the news for the next 72 hours not knowing if our house was still standing or not.
The level of destruction was horrific. Over 7000 acres of forest destroyed and 150 homes and counting completely burned to the ground. Friends emailed and called, wrote words of empathy and encouragement to us on Facebook and offered their help. The offering of help is what is so amazing to us now. It was as though this terrible fire brought out the very best in everyone that we knew; it brought out their truest nature: to give, to help. As the hours turned to days, our sleep wasn’t great. We talked about all of the “what ifs” and how we would deal with them. And then the list of burned houses became public. 169 homes were totally destroyed. For two days we checked for our address, and though extremely close to our house, our home was, for the time being, safe.
It was another week before we were allowed into our area and then we had to have a special pass issued at the Justice Center. The afternoon that we went to get our pass to get back into the canyon, we ran into neighbors who had lost everything. There really aren’t words to console someone who has suffered so much loss in one fell swoop, so open arms, hugs and tears were the mode of communication.
The day that we drove up Sunshine Canyon to see our home, we didn’t know what to expect. Would we be living with a burned forest around us? Driving up the canyon we saw a blackened mountain on the south side of the road and green forest on the north side. Pulling into our driveway, it was as though nothing had ever happened. The land and our home looked exactly the same. The house smelled of smoke though and a fine film of soot was present in many of the rooms. Leaving our house in such a rush on Labor Day, we broke a cardinal rule of fire safety: Close all of your windows and doors.
The next day we met with an insurance adjuster from American Family Insurance. We want to name their name here because so often you hear stories about unreasonable insurance companies that add to the suffering instead of helping. But American Family took care of us. They helped us get a smoke and mitigation cleaning crew up to the house. They replaced our mattress and bedding, washed and dry-cleaned all of our clothes, wiped soot off our every possession and after a week of cleaning, our house was ready for us.
We moved back in after being displaced for three and a half weeks. During that time we experienced all of the symptoms of heightened stress: fear, anxiety, denial, sorrow, grief, tension, disorientation and sleeplessness. The Zen saying goes like this: “now this being so, how shall I proceed?”
The “how shall I proceed” is the part that is about health care/ self-care. It’s what we have tried to practice and what we have learned.
Next: 10 Tips for Moving On
All of these suggestions deal with ways to begin healing. We relate them to the experience we just had, but they can be implemented into any kind of “loss” situation. No one in this world is exempt from suffering. Personal suffering can help build deeper compassion in our being. Practicing self-care skills is an important part of the healing process, and we are sharing with you what we have put into motion to deal with our stress, in hopes that somewhere down the line our experience and sharing may help someone else.
Sunshine Canyon does not look the same right now. It will not fully recover within the time we have left on this earth. One of the great truths of life is that everything changes and ends, and sometimes rather quickly. We allow ourselves to cry when we hike up the road to a forest that is now blackened and charred. We will allow ourselves to celebrate when we see the green that begins to come back in the spring. We are grateful to our neighbors and our friends; grateful to the beauty that this canyon has given us over the years. There is still work to be done; grief and sadness that will become integrated, and grace and gratitude that will underscore our faith in God and nature.