Image: Capital Public Radio
The Caldor Fire that’s forced my family and neighbors to abandon their homes, grew from 45 acres to over 126,182 since last we talked. Helicopters swarm in the sky, and fixed-wing planes dive like raptors to drop fire retardant. All of us scan the internet for information from our respective shelters as evacuees, hoping for some good news. The question of when we will be able to return home is up in the air and even premature to ask.
Stories circulate as news drifts from the smoking mountain to public buildings, hotels, motels, tents, campers, or wherever we’ve landed. Some require fact-checking – others from official sources like El Dorado County Fire officials are eagerly awaited. Facebook updates, live cast at 5 p.m. daily are an anchor for our individual reality, a harbinger of our collective future.
For all of us displaced by the fire, life goes on, but certainly, not as usual. Placerville and Diamond Springs, where thousands of people went for safety, are focused on little else. Churches opened their doors as shelters. It was mere hours before they reached capacity. Community centers and gyms transformed from places to play to communal bedrooms. Overnight, our sleepy mountain towns changed in character. People from many small communities, each with their own cozy mountain name, were forced to flee - Grizzly Flat being the first and worst hit by the fire.
Nonprofits like the El Dorado Community Foundation flew into action. Director Bill Roby says the organization exists to respond quickly, and it did. Within the first day, donations totaled more than $200,000. The money was quickly made available to families from throughout the evacuation zone. Roby says the funds helped people pay for temporary rooms, take care of outstanding bills, buy food and other immediate necessities. As of Tuesday (Aug 24), the fire had consumed 632 structures and more than 17,000 remain threatened. To date, 29,965 people have been evacuated.
Caring is contagious. Roby says Sacramento’s KCRA3 is holding a telethon, and the city’s professional soccer team, Sacramento Republic FC, launched a benefit for folks who fled the Caldor Fire. Never mind that Placerville and Sacramento are in different counties. Like wildfires, generosity has no boundaries.
County law enforcement welcomed troops from throughout the region – Galt, Sacramento, Folsom, and Merced. They occupy threatened communities around the clock. “In law enforcement, it’s what we do for each other,” said Eric Palmberg, spokesman for the local Sheriff’s Department and fire officials. “We’ve got people working 14-hour shifts around the clock.” All this to help keep thousands of empty homes safe from looters. He says the effort is paying off with only a handful of arrests.
Help with animals – large and small – was also immediately available. The El Dorado County Animal Shelter assembled an army of volunteers to visit homes, feed animals, and check on their welfare. My little wildcat, Orphan Annie, was among those who got her bowls filled with food and water and maybe even got a cautious pet. She’s feral at heart and unwilling to be crated and moved. My neighbor, Mary Lou, who’s made her backyard a sanctuary for unloved cats (numbering between 12 and 20, depending on the season) actually smiled for the first time in days. “I’m so happy,” she said, upon learning her community of cats had already been cared for and would see volunteers again within two days.
Individual acts of kindness also abound, too many to mention. Families with nowhere to go, no resources to access, children who cannot attend school, and people with special needs. They’re finding that humanity matters far more than politics (ours is a bitterly divided partisan area). And that value, above all, rises to the top like sweet cream.
Human kindness isn’t science – but it’s part of how we evolved from Lucy the Ape (3.2 million years ago) to all her descendants today. Humans (indeed all animals) evolved to survive. Our early ancestors found that living in communities provided strength and safety. That cooperation was superior to competition as a survival tactic. Our brains evolved to favor cooperation - It’s an embedded instinct that’s been with us for millions of years. It’s how humans developed foraging and hunting, how children were raised in primal cultures. Shared goals helped our species survive, create families and distinct cultures.
It’s in our core nature to help others make it through tough times – especially when it’s our neighbors. People we can identify with, whether we know them personally or not. And there’s a healthy exchange in this relationship. Everyone is better off when kindness rules the day. Both giver and receiver benefit, and community remains strong, resilient.
But none of that academic meandering matters when a family in Placerville, whom you’ve never met, offers the use of their travel trailer so your children won’t have to sleep on the ground. Or when the owner of a local café loads up his truck with pastries and hot coffee to hand out for free at the field where you’re camping in a tent. Or when a neighbor hauls your horses to safety at his ranch in the foothills.
Of course, the collective heroes of any out-of-control fire are the 1,745 firefighters who are defending people, homes, and the environment in shifts that can last a full 24 hours – Men and women who can’t wear masks while in the thick of toxic smoke because of the physical demands they face on the job. Who operate heavy equipment and wield hand tools while surrounded by flames. They're fueled by the mission and by compassion for folks who stand to lose their homes.
For example, one firefighter used a home surveillance camera to let the owner know his house was still standing; another pulled a kitten from smoking rubble, put it in his truck, and later delivered it to a local vet to treat its burned paws. The doc is caring for the kitten at no charge. Another searched the yard of a threatened home and found a child’s pink unicorn ‘stuffie’ and, after a long shift, located the home’s owners and returned the loved toy to its best friend - a four-year-old girl.
Our latest news is a mix of encouraging and concerning. A Cal Fire Operations Section Chief said a “wind event” has been predicted for Saturday, one that threatens to breach Hwy. 50 - already closed all the way up to Tahoe. At the same time, in my little niche, another Ops Chief said crews already worked hard on lines to protect homes like mine around Lake Jenkinson with dozer lines and hand crews, and retardant.
So we wait and wonder. There are lots of prayers filtering up into – and perhaps beyond – the smoke. At the same time, people listen to their better angels. We unite rather than divide. Give rather than take. And hope, always hope, no matter what may happen.
Thank you for reading! People like you are so important to people like me - who write because, well, we just have to. And without someone to read - whatever is the point? Particular thanks to readers who sent emails after last week's post about the fires. Some had been through a similar experience - suffering devastating and life-changing fires. Others sent heartfelt sentiments of caring for people (like me) whom they've never met. It's that kind of thoughtfulness that makes us human, despite our failings. Thank you.
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