We have been without the sky for four days now. Instead, the air has been orange. The sun is an orange disk behind billows of smoke. Not only has the color been strange, so has the sound. Silence. Normally, I can hear birds, or children, or even traffic from the street. There are no sounds, as if the heavy blanket of smoke overhead had muffled them. Ash drifts down in small white flakes. Everything that is left outside is soon covered by a thin gray coat of it. A red basketball hoop in our backyard has turned grayish white.
This is what it’s like being in Orange County this week. Although we are a safe distance from the flames, the fire has affected all of us. Schools have been closed. Sporting events have been canceled. Kids are trapped indoors. At my office, half of the people are working at home because they can’t get to the office because of road closures, or they have health conditions that keep them from working in our area. We know of around a dozen people who have been evacuated from their homes. Many are staying with friends in safer areas.
And the fire affects us physically. I’ve felt run down at the end of the day, and my eyes have been scratchy. My wife complained how hard it is to breathe. I can go into any place and hear at least two or three people cough.
I’ve lived in southern California all of my life. These fires should be second nature, especially when I lived my first 25 years in the smog-choked San Fernando Valley. But these fires are different. Perhaps it’s their size, number, or proximity, but these are fires that cannot be ignored. They are not fires that you can just watch on the evening news. They are not disasters that happen to someone else. They permeate our air, destroy our neighbors’ homes, uproot our sense of normalcy. They are our disaster. New York had 9/11. New Orleans had Katrina. Now, we have these fires.
Perhaps the lesson of the twenty-first century is that we can not afford to be complacent. Disaster isn’t something that happens to someone else. It can happen to us anytime. We must be ready. We must be aware.