“My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky” -- Wordsworth
St. Helena High School graduate Laurie Shields (nee Wilkerson) recently sent me a photo of a beautiful rainbow that arched over downtown Calistoga, the same day residents were allowed to return from the mandatory evacuation. Normally I am a big fan of rainbows. However, this one left me in a quandary.
Was this a Noah-esque sign from God, or a random, meaningless coincidence? It must have been a wonderful sight for Calistogans whose homes were spared, but I suspect that it offered little solace to the thousands of people who have lost their homes, jobs and been displaced by the Tubbs Fire. Interestingly, Galileo may have offered some perspective:
“Nature is inexorable and immutable and does not care one jot whether her secret reasons and modes of operation be above or below the capacity of man’s understanding.”
In other words, as horrifying as it might be, man is not exempt from the powerful forces of nature such as hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and fires.
Therefore, I guess this means that I have to consider this rainbow for what it was; a mysterious sign of beauty, hope and wonder in the midst of all the horror.
However, it dawned on me that humans are capable of creating spiritual rainbows, connecting each to the other.
Paraphrasing “Mr. Rogers;” when disasters occur, “look for the helpers” and you will see man at his finest.
Our eldest daughter owns a home in the upper Rincon Valley area of Santa Rosa and it was directly in the path of the fire. Although she was not in the mandatory evacuation zone, she frantically watched hundreds of her neighbors’ homes burn to the ground.
After the evacuation order was rescinded, she visited Molsberry’s Market, which also miraculously survived the blaze. While there, a very weary fire crew arrived, probably responding to the sign, “Free lunch for first responders.”
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Through the soot, sweat-stains, ash and grime she recognized the familiar face of the husband of one of her teaching colleagues. Overwhelmed with gratitude that her home was saved, and the role that this man played in helping to save it, she eschewed any latent trace of Victorian etiquette, threw her arms around him and gave him a huge hug.
He was absolutely exhausted and said that he was coming off a 100-hour shift. It began with 48-hours straight because replacement crews had not arrived.
We learned later that more than 9,000 firefighters, belonging to over 350 fire departments, arrived from as far away as Alaska, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Florida and even a crew from Australia. More than 50 police departments sent hundreds of officers to help with traffic, logistics and securing property.
We watched courageous pilots fly helicopters and huge airplanes into heavy smoke in repeated attempts to douse the terrifying conflagration.
Since then, hundreds of stories have emerged where people committed heroic acts to save others, their property and animals.
The damage will cost many billions of dollars and the Tubbs Fire (and surrounding Sonoma County fires) has already been designated as the most destructive wildfire in California history. However, without the selfless dedication of the thousands of firefighters, first responders, and law enforcement officers, it is highly likely that much of the city of Santa Rosa (and other Sonoma County towns) would have been reduced to ashes. Many of the dedicated workers continued to battle even though they learned that their own homes had been destroyed.
As awful as this experience continues to be, the heroic responses of these men and women transcend normal human behavior and offer us hope for humanity that will hopefully last longer than a transitory rainbow.
Even so, I doubt that I will ever to be able look at a rainbow again without pausing to reflect on the most destructive wildfire in our history.
Lowell H. Young