Monday, November 17, 2008

Apocalypse Home Makeover

Yesterday, the sun was little more than an orange disk in the sky obscured by tons of airborne ash kicked up by the three large wildfires burning in our vicinity. Though the closest fire is about 25 miles away, the smoke burns the back of all our throats and ash falls out of the sky all over the county. So if it's not Armageddon, it's a little bit of Pompeii.

We painted some furniture in the garage over the weekend but we may redo it because all the ash flying around in the air stuck to the wet paint. The particulate matter makes the air too foul to run. I've run in 110-degree heat, 24-below cold, monsoon rain and blizzard conditions. For me to say it's too smoky to run is a lot.

So far, the fires immolated about 850 homes. These are not your average house fires. Back in my Boston days, I had a temp job salvaging the ruins of structure fires. Sometimes the framework remained standing so I'd comb through the wreckage looking for anything salvageable. That job ended when a worker complained about the dangers of negotiating fire-weakened structures. The work was dangerous and dirty but finding a cache of relatively untouched family photos in the water-soaked wreckage provided some comfort for the families involved.

With a wildfire, the temperatures are so high, the building materials burst into flame spontaneously from the heat without any fire actually touching the structure. Or an ember drifts into a roof vent and touches off the attic insulation. Regardless of the ignition method, the end result is a concrete slab, a freestanding chimney and a pile of ash. Take it from one who knows. These people are lucky to find a pottery shard after wildfire consumes their house.

Some of the victims are wealthy people up in Montecito. It doesn't matter really when fire vaporizes all the pictures of your children, all their first grade finger paintings, the Father's Day cards they made for you, or videotapes from their fifth birthday party in 1991. Plus, any mementos from previous generations turn to ash and fly away with the breeze, only to land on my car or sting the back of my throat. No wonder the taste is so acrid.

No matter how wealthy the family, those days will never be recaptured. A lifetime of little thisses and thats telling a family's story goes poof. That's why we keep many of our most irreplaceable memories in a concrete and steel storage unit about a mile from our house. We live on a hillside just below Forest Lawn Memorial Park. A fire sweeping up our hill could be at our threshold in a few minutes. We'll have enough time to grab some clothes and a few files before we're boxed in.

My lovely wife Robin's maternal grandfather was Dr Corwin Hinshaw. Google his name and you'll discover a Nobel Prize candidate for his work in curing tuberculosis. Dr Hinshaw also worked with Charles Lindbergh studying the effects of high altitude on the human body. We are caretakers for quite a bit of this great man's memorabilia including rare 16mm footage from a lifetime of world travel. Personally, I'd feel better if a university held these effects but as long as they're under our protection, they'll be stored where their loss is less likely.

So what can we do for people losing everything in a wildfire? Aside from helping them with immediate needs, buy an empty scrapbook and fill it with every picture of the victims you can find. Call other friends and relatives to contribute. Everyone has pictures taken with other people in them so comb your archives. Check your videotape library for appropriate footage as well. Help restore a family legacy by replacing the irreplaceable. Clothes they can get anywhere.

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