Temporary Paradise in San Bernardino

A cloud of black smoke descends on my hometown.

As a former resident of Southern California,  Mike Davis’ “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” made me remember the wildfires I’d experienced. Though approximately 70 miles from Malibu, the same conditions exist: dry foothills and Santa Ana winds. In October of 2003, the ‘Old Fire’ started in the mountains above my hometown of San Bernardino. One site describes the impact of the fire as such:

“Fanned by the Santa Ana Winds, the fire burned 91,281 acres (369.4 km2), destroyed 993 homes and caused 6 deaths. The final cost of the fire was $42 million dollars. It should be noted that a USFS report on the “true” combined costs of the 2003 Old Fire, Padua, and the Grand Prix wildfires which burned at the same time was nearly $1.3 billion. When cleanup, watershed damages and other costs are considered beyond the mere “bill” for firefighting, wildfire impacts are much higher than many realize.

The fire threatened San Bernardino and Highland, as well as the mountain resort communities of Crestline, Running Springs and Lake Arrowhead and forcing upwards of 80,000 residents to evacuate their homes.’”

For a middle school girl, the tower cloud of dark smoke engulfing my city terrified me. The winds were incredible, everything not anchored down took to the sky. And my father’s new pastorate was in the heart of the burn center.

But I’d have to say Barbara Solnit describes my experience the best:

“Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago or both, situated in some primordial society before the Fall or a spiritual kingdom in a remote Himalayan vastness. The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time – at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell?”

And: “The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.”

The day after the main fire descended on the town, the members of my father’s church, in the heart of the burn area, meet in the sanctuary for organizational meeting and prayer. Across the street, three houses had burned to the ground. So had the houses to the side of the church, yet it suffered only a warped window.

The rest of the day was spent out of the streets as the congregation banned together to provide victims with whatever we could. We barbequed hotdogs and hamburgers and walked the devastated streets handing out food to people who stood in the pile of ashes that yesterday had been there home.

The church has always emphasized community outreach with frequent handouts and Christmas caroling, but that day spent in what no longer resembled our neighborhood was perhaps their best. We stopped at every single plot, gave people everything we could and referred them back to the church for more supplies.

For most of the year, that neighborhood was unreachable. People hid behind their doors, their fences, their walls. But that day it was truly a community.

But, back to Davis, that community didn’t last too long. All to soon the walls started to be rebuilt, and with a different class dynamic. Whereas before, the neighborhood has been a mix from lower- to upper-class families, now only the middle-upper and upper-class remained, rebuilt their dream homes, meticulously landscaped, yet to this day burnt out plots of those who couldn’t afford to come back remained.

Panorama of the 'Old Fire' as it burned at night.

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