Once again we awaken to pale blue skies. Only the smudgy beige horizon reveals what we know lies in store. With the windows and doors closed against the chill of the morning, we can pretend that the air does not reek of smoke, a smell that this time of year should mean nothing more than cheery fires burning in fireplaces to ward off the cold. The sun shining through the windows feels warm and seems to promise a beautiful day ahead.
We are not fooled by this false promise.
This afternoon the skies will grow gradually more dim as the gray haze settles down around us once again and the air becomes too thick to breathe. We will hide inside the best we can, our mood matching the bleakness of the afternoon sky as we acknowledge a reality that is almost too much to bear.
Just north of us, a wildfire rages. And while we have had to contend with hazardous air that has forced us to change plans and avoid what should be beautiful autumn weather in the Sacramento Valley, our suffering doesn't even come close to what those to the north have endured. They have lost loved ones and neighbors. They have lost their homes and their schools and their places of business. They have lost their entire town.
That smoke we breathe? It is the ashes of their lives carried by the winds to tell stories of their pain and loss and to beg us not to forget.
It is difficult for me to comprehend that there are those who continue about their day blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that has been unfolding for the last twelve days around what once was the town of Paradise. The devastation has been overwhelming. Entire neighborhoods reduced to ash. Cars, burned out and melted, abandoned along the streets, giving testimony to the horrors endured by those trying to escape the fast approaching flames and the downpour of embers that rained upon them from the dark cloud of smoke that transformed day into night. Videos captured the terror as residents frantically drove through the black smoke surrounded by orange flames dancing wickedly all around them, all the while reassuring each other they were going to make it. We can only imagine the fear felt by those who had no way out. As of now, that number stands at 77. Almost 1,000 people are still unaccounted for, leaving loved ones to worry and to fear the worst. For many, their worst fears will be realized in the days ahead. Some may never know for sure.
As the flames are doused and the smoke clears in the days or weeks ahead, thousands will be forced to grapple with the question, "What's next?" The reality of all they have lost will sink in and decisions will have to be made: stay and rebuild or move on and start over. For now, I imagine, all they know with any degree of certainty is that they're grateful to have survived.
My heart aches for the ones who were denied their future and for those who now face an uncertain one. But my aching heart does them no good. They do not need thoughts and prayers. They need action. They need food and shelter. They need warm clothes and shoes and money to buy the things they suddenly are without. They need us to provide while they try to pick up the pieces and contemplate a future that they did not plan on. And they need our promise. Our promise that we will learn from this terrifying experience. Although the lessons learned will do little to ease their loss and suffering, at least they will offer hope that a tragedy of this magnitude will be prevented from ever happening again. We can't let this get lost in the ugly name calling and finger pointing of politics. Too much is at stake. Just ask anyone who has lost Paradise.