As of right now (November 16, 2008) my house is permeated by the smell of smoke. With all of the windows closed and the air filter running it is still impossible to filter out the smoke smell. Smoke is one of those smells that you never get used to. It continually sets off alarms in your head. You can forget about it for minute or two, but it is like a car alarm that resets itself, and two minutes later it is going off again. It is just disquieting enough that it keeps you from ever really relaxing. Additionally, it seems like you can never blink enough to get that mildly burning feeling out of your eyes that is a result of the lingering smoke. What fun.
It all started on what seemed like a quiet Saturday morning; the kids were going to have basketball practice, and I was doing some basic chores around the house. About 10 a.m. my wife called and said she could see smoke in Yorba Linda. By the time my son was done with basketball practice at 1 p.m. the fire had begun engulfing parts of Yorba Linda and Brea at the rate of 100 feet a minute. By the time we were driving home from his practice we could see fire on the foothills. It was all very surreal.
At the height of what is now called the “Triangle Complex” fire I could see helicopters doing water-drops on the fire from my house. At one point the fire came within a couple of miles to the house, but the Brea fire department did amazing work saving most of the structures in our area.
While we were not deeply threatened by the fire, many people were. 150 homes have been lost to the fire in the “Triangle Complex” fire alone. A total of over 1000 homes were lost this week in the fires that devastated Southern California. Westmont College (a sister Christian institution to Biola) is shut down until at least Wednesday of this week after the fire in Santa Barbara destroyed faculty houses, dorms and academic buildings. The fire at Westmont moved so fast they had to put some of their students into the fire proof gym for the night. Thankfully, as far as I know, no one was hurt.
The obvious question is why do these things happen? One way of explaining it would be to discuss the Southern California climate, the lack of humidity, the high winds, the dry brush etc, and that the fire was a result of the confluences of all of these natural occurrences. We could also point out that there were just too many fires happening simultaneously, and that there were just not enough fire fighting resources to go around. But, all of the natural explanations about the causes of the fire fall well short of being satisfactory.
C.S. Lewis states in his book, The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (See Anthony Hopkins’ rendition of this here) How do we reconcile that when we are wrestling with loss and suffering?
While an answer to the problem of human suffering in the world is a much longer post I do think that crisis is an opportunity to remember what we have forgotten in our daily pursuit of this world. During this recent fire I have seen strangers being genuinely kind to one another. People helping out individuals they don’t even know because we go back to basics, and we realize (whether overtly or tacitly) that each of us is a reflection of God’s image. We become less worried about the things that are transitory and temporal, and focus on the eternal. People say things like,”The most important thing is that our family is alive and well,” and they actually mean it.
This is an opportunity for all of us to reconsider what is important in our lives. We should be sharing with those who have lost everything because we see them as fellow image-bearers of our Lord. It is also a time when we should realize that we are responsible to those around us who are less fortunate than we are. We need to offer a cup of cold water to those in need.