When polarity defines us, it’s easy to lose sight of our common humanity. But all is not political, as nature increasingly reminds us. The fires in California that have destroyed lives, homes and towns — displacing thousands and wreaking havoc on the psyches of first-responders and reporters — have provided a glimpse of a primordial nightmare shared by all living creatures.
There actually have been three fires, two of which persist — the “Camp Fire” in northern California that burned a town called Paradise and the “Woolsey Fire,” which incinerated much of Malibu. As of Friday, the total body count was 66; the missing numbered more than 600.
Try as I might to avoid the darkness, I inevitably fail and step into the void, where quarters are rather crowded with fellow pilgrims who likewise need to wonder and to know. What is it like to be trapped by walls of fire with only a car, if lucky, for escape? Was there plenty of gas? Were there stragglers? What about pets? What does that kind of heat feel like? How does one fathom the unfathomable?
This isn’t so much morbid fascination as it is, I suspect, a way to form solidarity with the dead. Bystanders to tragedy, we’re as helpless as the victims were to shift the Santa Ana winds that pushed mountains of fire through hundreds of thousands of acres. At the very least, we can commit a few minutes to meditate upon their suffering.
Thanks to on-the-ground reporters, that maligned body of human beings without whom we would be tempest-tossed in a sea of gossip, we have caught glimpses of the horror.
You may have heard the father singing to his 3-year-old daughter as he drove through the inferno, reassuring her that they were not going to catch fire. You might also have listened to Rebecca Hackett of Agoura Hills, who recorded her drive through a literal tunnel that promised not light but a roaring, blood-red blaze of unknowable depth.
Throughout her ordeal, Hackett talked to God. Sobbing, she implored, “Oh-my-God, oh-my-God, oh-my-God ... Please God, let me out of here.”
How did she have the wherewithal to film her escape? Was she aiming for posterity — or self-preservation? To hit “video” on a cell phone must have felt like doing something normal against the insane backdrop of a fiery doom. It was also a gesture of hope given that her experience would likely be viewed only if she survived. As her rational mind surely battled encroaching chaos, Hackett managed to remain focused — and did survive.
Was it luck? Fate? God? What, we wonder, would we have done?
Later, Hackett spoke of the ordeal almost nonchalantly, or something akin. Though probably a function of adrenaline and the unbearable lightness of relief, it was striking nonetheless. The power of alive-ness apparently had overwhelmed any residual terror.
Allyn Pierce, an intensive care nurse, recorded a farewell to his family as his town was enveloped by flames. “Just in case this doesn’t work out, I want you to know I really tried to make it out,” he subsequently reported saying. He then listened to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” to help him remain calm.
There, indeed, may be atheists in foxholes, where the chances of survival are 50-50. But when the relative risk shifts closer to a 1-in-10 shot, one wonders. Hackett’s prayer became her mantra and, perhaps, kept her alive.
That people filmed themselves or recorded messages under such potentially lethal circumstances was at once sweet, lovely, terrible and tragic. What compels these perhaps-final acts? Again, it seems connected to human beings’ irreducible quest for meaning and a connection to the everlasting. The juxtaposition of such a technologically enabled act — I recorded, therefore I was — and the most basic and purgative of elements invites irony where it is least wanted.
At the end of our days, most of us share the fear of the unknown. But to be trapped in a car, waiting for the flames to engulf you and, perhaps, your loved ones — it is too much to consider. Yet and still, we go there because when the smoke clears, we recognize that we’re all one under the sun. We suffer when others suffer; we grieve when others grieve. We are all from the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
May the dead rest in peace — and the living be ever mindful that whatever divides us, it, too, shall pass.
KATHLEEN PARKER is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email her at email@example.com.