Skip to Content

Opinion: In the blink of an eye, a wildfire changed everything

Opinion by Sandra Younger

(CNN) — One hot, windy night in late October 2003, my husband and I woke to the sight of fire outside our window — a tsunami of fire flooding the Southern California canyon we called home.

We grabbed our pets — two giant Newfoundland dogs and a cockatiel — threw a few photos into a laundry basket and ran for our lives, driving through pea-soup smoke and sheeting flames to escape the infamous Cedar Fire, which ripped through more than 270,000 acres in San Diego County and is now seen as a bellwether of today’s climate-driven “megafires.”

Behind us, our house and all we owned disintegrated into ashes — one of more than 3,500 homes lost in a two-week flurry of monstrous fires that erupted across Southern California that deadly autumn. But we were alive! Somehow, against all odds, we had survived.

It happens so fast. One day, one moment, all is well. And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changes. Suddenly you’re homeless, unmoored, dependent on the kindness of strangers for the most basic necessities of life — a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, a few borrowed T-shirts and jeans. And when you look ahead, trying to figure out how to put your life back together, the road looks long and treacherous. Because it is.

Whether fire or flood, earthquakes or volcanoes, storms or tsunamis, natural disasters destroy both physical and personal worlds. A full response to the apocalyptic scenes we’re seeing with increasing frequency as our planet warms must include both material and emotional support. Pop-up shelters, government-sponsored emergency housing and even full-replacement insurance policies aren’t enough to heal traumatized minds and hearts.

I learned these lessons the hard way. I’ve spent the last decade sharing our story to help others be more prepared than we were, especially as the likelihood of large-scale natural disasters rises everywhere, even in locations once considered low-risk.

My own survival suggestions boil down to four points I call the LIVE Formula:

Listen to your gut. If you feel you’re in danger, leave. Don’t wait for an official evacuation notice that may never come.
Inform yourself. Pay attention to real-time news and weather reports.
Value your life over your possessions. Don’t waste precious time loading vehicles with things you can easily replace. Instead, act now. Upload key photos and documents to the cloud. Fill easy-to-grab go-bags with valuables, medicines and short-term supplies. Keep wallets and car keys handy and gas tanks at least half full.
• Finally, and most important: Evacuate early. The majority of civilian fatalities happen when people wait too long to leave.

A simple online search can tell you everything else you need to know about planning for disaster. It’s much harder to find resources that help survivors navigate the aftermath. Recovery efforts tend to focus on economic resilience — restoring infrastructure, rebuilding homes and businesses. When it comes to strengthening personal resilience, survivors typically are on their own.

Emotional recovery takes time. Grief doesn’t stick to schedules. But my own fire experience taught me that faith, caring support and a few simple resilience-boosting practices can speed and smooth the comeback journey.

As news of the Cedar Fire’s devastation spread, those of us who’d lost our homes heard ourselves referred to as “fire victims.” I bristled at that. Victim? I could hardly think of a more disempowering label. And besides, how could I be a victim? I was alive, unlike 12 of our canyon neighbors listed among the fire’s 15 fatalities.

As another neighbor later put it: “We buried the victims. The rest of us are survivors.”

Most Southern California fire survivors I interviewed for my book, “The Fire Outside My Window,” felt the same. But some, either broken or bitter, did see themselves as victims. And surprisingly it didn’t seem to matter how much, or how little, they’d lost to the flames.

That’s when I realized: It’s a choice! We may not always have control over what happens to us, but we can still choose our response. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a man who lost his family and his freedom during the Holocaust, discovered this principle even in the midst of extreme suffering.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl wrote.

A robust body of research on our human capacity for resilience confirms the importance of choice in a healthy comeback journey. Victim or victor? You get to choose the part you’ll play as your story unfolds.

Gratitude is another fundamental practice proven to support emotional recovery. Finding even one thing to be grateful for — simply being alive is a good place to start — can alleviate despair and protect us from the toxic quicksand of bitterness and blame that prevents healing and growth.

Patience with the journey, coupled with belief that your innate resilience will take you the distance, is a third piece of the resilience puzzle. Know that you are part of a resilient universe; resilience is in your DNA.

Connecting with others, accepting and asking for help rather than playing the stoic, is also critical to recovery. (No shame here. Even superheroes rely on mentors, allies and higher powers.)

And finally, it’s essential to keep moving forward, however slowly. Gradually letting go of attachments to all that was lost enables us to embrace a new normal filled with new opportunities and possibilities.

In our case, we were fortunate that sufficient insurance enabled us to rebuild our home in the canyon environment we loved. Some people have asked why we rebuilt in the same location. The short answer: Because it was home. And there’s nothing survivors want more after losing their homes than to regain them.

This time we designed the house to uniquely suit our needs and with a greater emphasis on fire safety. We used proven fire-hardening construction techniques, including a concrete tile roof, stucco exterior, sealed eaves and soffits, tempered double-paned windows, fire-resistant paint on the few wood surfaces and ember guards on all exterior vents.

We established and still maintain “defensible space” — at least a 100-foot perimeter of cleared or mitigated natural vegetation — to starve potential flames of fuel. We used river rocks instead of mulch and chose low-growing plants placed at least 5 feet away from the house. Rebuilding boosted our spirits tremendously.

Still, it was the personal resilience-building principles we discovered that healed our hearts and minds. I’d like to see these powerful concepts, along with access to professional support when needed, become key components of community disaster recovery efforts.

It’s encouraging that a shift away from victim terminology is already underway. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2008 declared its preference for “survivor,” noting the importance of respectful language that acknowledges the strength and resilience of those affected by disasters.

In 2018, following the deadly Thomas Fire and resulting debris flow, California’s Santa Barbara County set a positive example in personal resilience-building for local governments facing the Herculean task of community disaster recovery.

“We realized hope is oxygen, and we needed to help people become survivors, not victims,” Rob Lewin, then the county’s director of emergency management, told me. “Part of that effort was providing community wellness teams of professional counselors for the first year. And at every town hall meeting, we would literally say, ‘We have a choice now, to be victims or survivors.’”

There’s no denying that personal recovery begins with tears. It is too soon for survivors to think about silver linings while attending funerals and sifting through the wreckage of their homes and businesses. Negotiating the initial aftermath of disaster is overwhelming and all-consuming.

But it’s important for those whose worlds have fallen apart to know that they can come back, that they are more resilient than they know, that others have blazed the trail and marked the way forward, and that we are sending understanding and encouragement from the other side of the abyss.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: cnn-opinion

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content