It will take months and, in some cases, years for things to get back to “normal” in the cities of Santa Barbara and Montecito following a devastating wildfire and catastrophic mudslides. The main thoroughfare up the coast, Highway 101, has just been repaired, cleared, and reopened to traffic. The remaining cleanup is going to require a herculean effort.
In the face of this cleanup, what I find most difficult to comprehend is the loss of life. We can scrub away the mud and ash to a pretty good degree. Grief, on the other hand, is never truly expunged.
I offer my words from the Editor’s Comments of the January/February 2018 issue of MSW Management. It’s personal.
“There are some realities we need to face. The 36,807-acre Tubbs fire that tore through Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties in Northern California this past fall has resulted in nearly 50,000 tons of post-fire debris being taken to Sonoma County’s Central Landfill. That particular mountain of ash, metal, and charred wood came from around 260 incinerated home sites. More than 5,100 homes burned down in Sonoma County and their remains are also destined for the Central Landfill.
Republic Services has been allowed to increase its daily weight maximums for hauling, and in the end, roughly 1 million tons of debris are expected, with half of it being recycled and half going to the landfill. This is raising concerns that the increased flow is rapidly lowering the landfill’s life expectancy.
As 2017 came to a close, a rash of several more wildfires in Southern California broke out, one of which—the Thomas Fire—has the potential to be the biggest in the state’s history. The event is creating even more concern over debris removal and disposal as hundreds more homes were destroyed by fire.
I have no doubt that whatever issues arise from the cleanup of these disasters, they will be handled in a very professional and pragmatic manner by those of you who face those challenges. And in the end, you’ll decide on what steps to take to solve them.
But I’m finding there are other realities we need to face. I’ve watched news footage of the affected neighborhoods and I’ve seen the endless stream of photos of burned out homes on the Internet. It’s made me think back to my own days as a beat reporter and being at the scene of a devastating house fire on more than several occasions. I’ve spoken to families who had just lost everything to disaster. I’ve watched them hold on to loved ones and friends for support and reassurance.
Somewhere in the process of hauling away the debris, we need to see beyond the black and gray ash and remember that it’s not just rubble.
They were baseballs thrown between fathers and sons, blankets that held newborn babies, prom dresses. They were the Christmas tree ornaments that documented decades of holiday seasons, instruments that filled the house with music, a favorite reclining chair.
After one fire I covered, a mother said to me in a quivering voice, “I should have grabbed my running shoes; I always felt good in them.” And after another, I still remember the sound of two sisters, wrapped in one coat, quietly weeping for lost art supplies.
You can say they’re only “things.” But they are the objects that can express to the world who we are, that connect us to the meaning and emotion of events. They act as the reference marks in our individual timelines. They give us comfort.
If you look at almost any picture of what used to be a home, the only thing left standing is a brick fireplace and chimney. Maybe that’s the chimney someone’s children believed Santa slid down. Were there family photos on that fireplace mantle? In the ash that used to be walls, can you hear the echoes of “Happy New Year!” or birthday celebrations, graduations or Super Bowl Sundays?
History will record the cold facts of “total number of structures lost” or “increased tonnage to the landfill” and the ultimate solutions we formulate. As we continue to speak of the hardship in the cleanup, I just ask that for at least a brief moment, you think of the possessions and the homes that are being shoveled and dumped, and the grief embedded in their loss.”