California fires: When disaster strikes, forget the car

Almost 37,000 acres—that was the trail of destruction left by the Northern California wildfires in October 2017. And while the counties of Napa, Lake. and Sonoma were all hit hard, it was the city of Santa Rosa that saw the most devastation with more than 2800 homes completely destroyed. The fires claimed lives, property, and businesses and in their path uprooted families who now bare physical and emotional scars that no one should have to face.

It’s now November 2018, 13 months after those deadly fires. And while many in those regions are still rebuilding, a new set of wildfires have emerged that are currently cutting a path through both Northern and Southern California. As of now the death toll and damage continue to rise. It’s terrifying to watch.

An event like this reminds us what’s really important and puts it into clear perspective.

As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m extremely fortunate to be safe from the current threat. But I do have friends and acquaintances that are potentially in harm’s way. Case-in-point: I began making calls at the end of last week to a friend who resides in Chico, California, and whose office was located in the town of Paradise in Butte County. He mentioned how the fires were getting close and that he was leaving work early to be with his family. At the time he was concerned, but in no way panicked. He decided that leaving was the best course of action.

2014 California Wildfires
2014 California Wildfires Sgt. Keonaona Paulo

Five hours later the entire town of Paradise was engulfed in flames. He was now planning to evacuate with his wife and family from their home in Chico. This is a friend of over 35 years and never in the time I’ve known him have I heard that tone of fear in his voice. We both tried to stay calm. We talked about what he needed if he did have to evacuate. There were clothes, financial documents, deeds, passports, etc., and he said he’d call me back when they were secured. After a few hours I’d heard nothing and decided to call. He mentioned they were packed and if the evacuation order came through that they’d be leaving ASAP and headed my way. He told me how his two young boys were looking to him for reassurance, and that while he kept his kids calm, deep down he was unsure of what the next 24 hours would bring.

During our conversation he mentioned something that struck me. My buddy is not a car enthusiast in any way; he appreciates cars, but he can’t tell the difference between a Chevelle and a Camaro. Instead he’s a full-on sports nut and memorabilia collector and has been since we were kids. His home contains a room that’s dedicated to all things sports—signed footballs, hockey sticks, baseballs, basketballs, and posters s to which I’ve no clue of their significance or value.

He entered his office and started scrambling to get his collectibles in order, but after pulling a few things off the walls, he stopped and took stock of what he was doing. There was nothing in that room that truly impacted him or his family in any way. He realized there was nothing that he had to take with him or save in case disaster struck. So he simply stepped back, said “to hell with it,” and focused on reassuring his wife and kids that everything would be OK.

2007 California wildfire damage
2007 California wildfire damage Andrea Booher/FEMA

Whether you know it or not, being a car enthusiast connects you to a big, wonderful community. That special bond we share makes us see things differently, and it’s a way to connect with someone else who has put blood, sweat, and tears into preserving a piece of rolling history. When we hear of a vehicular misfortune we feel for the owner, and more times than not, offer assistance if we can.

Over the last week I’ve received numerous calls and emails from friends and acquaintances that have lost homes and vehicles due to the California wildfires. But the constant in all of those messages is this: As long as people and their loved ones are safe, that’s all that matters. When it comes down to it, no matter how much you love a car, the human thing is to leave it be when what’s truly irreplaceable is in danger.

Our hearts go out to all the California residents who have experienced loss or been affected by these fires.

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