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Carr Fire Etiquette: Put Yourself in Survivors’ Ashy Shoes

A trio of cypress trees stand sentry in front of the remains of the Craig home after it was destroyed by the Carr Fire. Photo courtesy of Doug Craig

I didn’t lose my home, but I know many people who did. And I’ve noticed a few delicate things that have come up, things that perhaps those who’ve lost their homes don’t quite know how to say.

Who can blame them? They’re in shock. They’re in this weird limbo feeling, similar to when you’re staying at a hotel, and no matter how OK it might be, at some point you just want to go home.

Where do you go when you want to go home, but the home as you knew it no longer exists?

In the middle of all this, they’re encountering people every day, most of whom mean well, but who can say and do things that inadvertently make the fire victims feel even worse. But the fire survivors say nothing, because they don’t want to offend or ruffle well-meaning feathers. Besides, they’re reserving their energy to start from zero with nothing. They wake each day to the reality that no, it wasn’t a nightmare; their home really did burn in a fire. It really is all gone.

There’s no Dear Abby Carr Fire book to tell us the most civilized way to navigate these rude, unruly times. But we grow wiser each day, and learn as we go. I confess that some of the things on my Carr Fire don’t list are sins I’ve committed myself. For that, I feel crappy.

But I will do better now because I know better.

Carr Fire etiquette is similar to death etiquette. No wonder, since those who’ve lost homes to the Carr Fire have experienced a death – of their sanctuary, their security, their shelter, their memories, their belongings, their sentimental reminders, and on and on and on.

We can say, “I can imagine how difficult it must be,” but really, unless it’s happened to us, we cannot imagine. Not really. Even so, here are a few things I’ve learned that I’ll pass onto you, mainly in the area of what not to do and what not to say.

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Insurance

Did you have insurance? Did you have good insurance? What will your insurance cover?  Are you going to take the money and rebuild, or take the money and move? Where will you go, what will you do?

Avoid all those questions. First, it’s none of our business. Second, if the person wants to volunteer it, then that’s their choice. And then, when/if they do discuss it, don’t ask a single question. Not one. Not unless you’re their insurance agent.

Listen. Hug. Show you care. Mean it.

Belongings

Were you able to grab all the photos? How about your grandmother’s piano? How about your collection of (fill in the blank)? What about your precious (fill in the blank)?  

The thing is, these questions may be intended as helpful, but if you’ve ever evacuated, as I have, then you know first-hand how bat-shit crazy our minds go under that kind of fight-or-flight pressure. That’s how we end up with a box of bras and flip flops but no underwear and the checkbook is still sitting in the top desk drawer with a stack of cash near our prescription glasses and medications.

Asking those questions will either make the person feel like a failure if they didn’t grab those mentioned items, or trigger grief if they’d forgotten and you’d just reminded them (gee, thanks). Also, if you’ve asked those questions, and they admit that no, they were unable to hoist out grandma’s 1-ton grand piano in the 7 minutes they had to run for their lives, and you respond with, “Oh no!” then the burned-out, newly homeless person is left feeling that somehow, they need to comfort you over your disappointment.

Never, under any circumstances say, “It’s just stuff.” It’s not just stuff. It was a tangible manifestation of their entire life and history. However, if you insist on continuing to think that saying, “It’s just stuff” is an OK statement, take a moment, pour gasoline all over your house, strike a match, watch it burn, and then report back about how that statement feels now. It’s just stuff. 

I’ll wait.

Never, under any circumstances, say, “Well, at least …” because no good words can follow, “Well, at least.”  Even saying, “Well, at least you’re alive,” isn’t helpful, because it’s stating the obvious, and it minimizes their current situation, which is yes, they’re alive, but existing in a little piece of hell.

Nor is this the appropriate time to point out all the ways in which they’re lucky, like thank goodness they managed to get one of the three dogs, or to point out silver linings, or to remind them how someone else has it worse, or how it could have been worse.

It is already the worst. They’ve not had a decent night’s sleep since the night their home burned down. And in their insomnia, they’ve thought of every single thing you could possible say, and they’ve tortured themselves and wondered and worried and tossed and turned in agony.

Listen. Hug. Show you care. Mean it.

Donations

When people have lost everything, the last thing they need is a bunch of cast-off crapola they didn’t ask for.

There’s a four-word solution: Cash and gift cards.

I mean, perhaps there are exceptions, such as if you happened to know they lost their car and they always admired your 1967 fully restored cherry-red Mustang. If that’s the case, then, by all means, go for it, give them the pretty pony.

But don’t put them in the awkward position of feeling ungrateful if they are not jumping for joy and kissing your feet over a donated a box of used flatware, dented pots and pans and faded bed sheets. That kind of stuff is not better than nothing. It’s worse than nothing, because it’s stuff they didn’t request, and now they’re stuck with it. Cash and gift cards allow them to retain the joy and dignity to go shopping, when the time is right, to buy exactly what they need.

p.s.: If you do give cash and credit cards, don’t broadcast your good deed to the entire world. Rest assured, you’ll get your reward in heaven.

Burned out neighborhoods are not for joy rides

I’m seeing a lot of posts of Facebook taken by well-intentioned folks whose new idea of entertainment is to hop in the car and drive slowly through burned-out neighborhoods just to point and stare and see what Carr-Fire devastation looks like up close. I know people are curious. But taking these drives or strolls through the destroyed areas, videotaping the ash and despair, giving running commentaries, is highly insensitive of the people who’ve lost their homes.

Many areas: Shasta, Rock Creek Road, Victoria Drive, Keswick, Mary Lake, Harlan Drive and Sunset Terrace, to name a few, are a hodgepodge combination of burned-to-the-ground homes, singed homes and unscathed properties. The people who returned to their homes don’t appreciate living in a fishbowl as if they’re human exhibits. And the people whose homes burned don’t appreciate people looking at what’s left of everything they owned, as if it’s something out of an amusement park. It’s painful and personal enough for the fire survivors to experience without an audience.

As an aside, this is where bona fide, responsible media has its place as authentic reporters to the masses. This is no time for thousands of first-time, one-time “citizen journalists” to converge upon a disaster. Let the true professionals do their job.

The Carr Fire aftermath is not the north-state version of a Hollywood homes tour. This is the horrific devastation wreaked by the Carr Fire. People are mourning. People are in shock. It’s traumatic enough to be standing ankle deep in ash trying to find your grandmother’s wedding ring without a bunch of bored lookie loos turning victims’ tragedy into their entertainment.

Put yourself in their ashy shoes.

It’s kind of like crashing somebody’s great-grandpa’s open-casket funeral just to satisfy a morbid curiosity about what a really, really old dead guy looks like. The thing is, it’s not the funeral-crasher’s great-grandpa. The people who really loved him are there, grieving. They don’t want outsiders there during this private, sad time.

So, unless you are a resident, a former resident, or an invited guest of either of those two categories, if you’re there, you’d better be delivering pizza or new Sub Zero refrigerators for everyone.

For all of us

Our new Carr-Fire normal has tens of thousands of us functioning citizenry falling into five general categories: The evacuated who would later return to unscathed homes. The evacuated who returned to intact, but damaged homes and property. The evacuated whose homes were destroyed. Those whose homes were destroyed without warning. Those whose homes were out of harm’s way, and took in the evacuated, or helped the evacuated.

Basically, one way or another, everyone in our north state region was affected by the Carr Fire and is some kind of a survivor. Everyone has a Carr Fire story to tell.

And even though there are more of us who didn’t lose homes than those who did, the entire north state was – and is – traumatized. Nobody from outside this area can truly understand the feeling of oppression and depression the Carr Fire has imparted upon us. Outsiders can’t really understand how easily we startle, how on high alert we are to smoke and sirens. How on edge we are. Woe unto the unsuspecting telemarketers who reach people in the Carr Fire region.

Yes, it’s a relief that the Carr Fire is more than 80-percent contained and that it’s lost interest with our urban areas. But until its last gasp, it will terrorize other areas, as it is at Shasta Lake.

Some may say, well, since the Carr Fire has mostly moved on, surely we’ve also moved on by now, right?

Wrong. We’ve not moved on, because life is still highly abnormal here. It is not business as usual, or normal in the least. I don’t know when it will be, but I know it’s not happened yet. Maybe we’ll know it when we see it.

We mere mortals have no control over the Carr Fire. But we can be extra gentle and patient with ourselves and others, because it could take a very long time before we feel right again. Words will continue to fail. But that’s OK. Sometimes, when words fail, all that’s left are things that require no words at all.

Listen. Hug. Show you care. Mean it.

Repeat as necessary.

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Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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