Here in Wenatchee, Washington it has been an eventful couple of days. A fire started yesterday in the afternoon and quickly moved along the hillside towards town, destroying around 24 homes and catching in several buildings downtown. Earlier today there was a threat of an ammonia leak and warnings to stay inside. As I write this, I don’t know the extent of the damage. It seems the fires are no longer spreading, but they are still burning and there is concern that the wind could whip them into a frenzy if it picks up.
I need to process this fire. It has shaken me up.
My house hasn’t burned down and I am safe. I’m thankful for this! But you should know that until November 2013 I spent the entirety of my life along the east coast. They don’t have wildfires. There were severe snows and hurricane threats periodically, but they rarely directly touched my life. Living out west in an area susceptible to fires is a different experience entirely. One of the things I’ve loved about being out west is the sheer wildness of it, the imposing peaks, the winding highways through passes, the reminders that I’m small. But there’s another side to that coin that I don’t like as much and it is called fire. I’ve had to ask myself over the past few days- “Can I stand to live in a place where there’s a very real possibility each fire season that I could lose everything?”
Uncertainty and Fear
As my wife and I realized the fire wasn’t abating and was getting closer, we went for a brief drive up into the hills across the river to get an idea of what was actually going on. Seeing the lines of fire along the ridges was shocking. It was a primal scene. Even worse was seeing flames erupt from buildings several miles from our house. I felt very small and extremely helpless. I was witnessing a force of nature. It was no longer “out there” as in some disaster you see in the news or hear about secondhand. I was watching it spread in my town and wondering how it was ever going to stop.
After we got home we turned on the news and discovered that evacuations were happening directly to the north and west of us. You know that question, “If your house was on fire what would you grab?” I always thought of that as a nice thought exercise, again one I wouldn’t have to actually consider. But as I looked out our back window and could see nothing but flames on the hillside, we readied ourselves for a quick escape. As we packed, I was struck by how little I felt the need to bring. I was mainly concerned with my journals, letters from family and friends, pictures, and a few books that have meant a lot to me.
We were not evacuated, so we went to bed reluctantly at 3:30 AM, continuing to nervously glance out the window and check for evacuation notices. We prayed a simple prayer before several fitful hours of sleep, and I was struck by something my wife Tiffany said to God. She thanked Him that no matter what happened to us or our belongings, we had Him.
And that’s what it always comes back to doesn’t it? I was given another opportunity to realize my insignificance both personally and in my material possessions. I was scared. I couldn’t imagine the suffering of those that had actually lost their homes. But I needed to be redirected, to see beyond the flames to the God of the universe, and to know that my life, now and forever is in His hands.
This is not a new insight. We know how suffering, loss, and moments of fear can give us a fresh dose of perspective. I have a renewed desire not to take anything for granted. People woke on Sunday morning like it was a perfectly normal day and by that evening they were fleeing their homes. I was also reminded not to hold onto anything too tight. You don’t get to take it with you, at some point in this life it may be taken from you, and most of it doesn’t matter anyway. But last night these things I’ve thought about primarily as intellectual, head knowledge, shifted to emotional experience for me. I pray I don’t forget the truth of it. We’re such interesting and stubborn creatures. Well, I won’t speak for you. I’m mostly amazed at myself that it takes something like a town catching on fire to make me stop and actually take in deeper truths. And by tomorrow I fear I will have forgotten it and started worrying about petty things, focused again on my comfort. Let it not be so!
“Whom have in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:25-26