Three summers ago, I stood in my neighborhood and watched a strip of fire burn on the distant mountainside across the San Fernando Valley. Last winter, we felt the threat of fire as dry winds blew our windows open and the Thomas Fire burned in nearby Ventura County. With each fire season, the possibility of disaster hitting my community became more imminent. And this November, the roof of our home caught fire as the Woolsey Fire burned through my neighborhood in Los Angeles County.
While I waited for updates in Berkeley about the Woolsey Fire’s effect on my home, my room smelled like smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County. The sun felt like it was setting all day.
My family was luckier than many in the area. Firefighters had prevented the fire from flooring the house, but the fire left gaping holes in the roof where it had collapsed into the house. My mom was forced to move, and we still do not know the extent of our loss — what can be cleaned and what’s irreparable.
More than the house’s structure, I was worried about the contents I may have lost, the objects that had always been essential to my sense of home and identity: the Tibetan chest, the tapestry with a moon-faced man, my whiny journals from middle school, my yellow peacoat. When I visited the house with my mom, it was overwhelming to see our things covered in ash and dust, yet we also laughed when we both shrieked, “Not the Instant Pot!” after finding it beneath the kitchen rubble.
My mom and my sister had lived in the house for the past couple of years since my parents separated. Nestled in the mountains, the house was a space of sudden and rare calm after many years of chaos in my family. And I cherished that calm whenever I returned home for break, dancing in the kitchen with my sister and my mom, safe and happy in our feminine sunshine nest.
My mom said to me on the day of the fire, “You have to assume that we’ve lost everything.”
She told me to be grateful for each thing that we salvaged instead of agonizing over each thing that was lost. In the rush of evacuation, my mom left the house with three pairs of dirty underwear she had grabbed from the washing machine, along with some valuable art and her divorce paperwork. If we had lost everything else, we would build from there.
Like a typical Jewish mother, my mom milked the situation over Thanksgiving break while I was in LA. At every chance, she guilt-tripped me with demands such as, “My house burned down! You can do the dishes!”
We turned to humor for comfort within the absurdity. In response to the wave of kind gestures we received after the news of the fire, we laughed together, joking, “If only our house burned down more often!”
Throughout the chaos, I felt cocooned by an upswell of community support. On the day of the fire, my fellow assistant news editors rushed from the newsroom to my co-op and supported me during the initial moments of panic. In an almost unbelievable moment of kindness, firefighters left a note in our house that read: “We’re sorry we didn’t make it here in time. We tried to save the memories.”
The firefighters also left three pieces of pottery with my siblings’ baby handprints on them safe in the grass outside.
While my mom tried to put a positive spin on the situation, there were moments when she could not help but be vulnerable. She could not sleep as it started to rain across California, imagining water falling through the holes in the roof and further damaging our piano. Rain could cause mudslides because the scorched mountainsides lacked plant life to stabilize the soil. I imagined a wave of mud roaring through our living room.
The mountains that my family lived in for 10 years join more than 1.8 million acres of land burned in the 2018 fire season, the most destructive in California history. My fall semesters at UC Berkeley have been marked by a new tradition of N95 masks suddenly becoming a basic need.
Next year, when I feel the familiar warm November winds and when the state might break records again, I now know I should be prepared to have a bag packed and an N95 mask at hand. Toxicity and disaster are normalized in this age of climate change — we all play a role in preparing for these new realities and electing responsible officials. We deserve more than President Donald Trump’s claim that the solution to wildfires is raking the forests.
Experiencing the surrealism of California’s apocalyptic landscape may motivate us to respond proactively to climate change. But I also fear that as these crises become routine, we will resign into passivity or be so preoccupied with responding to disaster that prevention becomes, understandably, an afterthought.
Despite these fears and our losses, I will return to a safe new home over winter break, and my sister and my mom will be there waiting for me. There is comfort in finding stability within a changing landscape, and I am learning how to feel settled in myself, even if the roof collapses and the mud roars in.