In the days afterward, they dwelled mainly on the things they left behind. False teeth. Diaries. A coin collection. A grandparent's blanket.
Thousands fled their homes in haste in the wake of the Carr Fire, a wildfire that burned more than 200,000 acres in northern California in July and August. (It's nearly 100 percent contained.) Waiting for news, they stayed at friends' houses, with family, at hotels, and in evacuation shelters, passing the time with books or games or mid-afternoon naps. When they received the news, that their former lives had been reduced to cinders, they tried to think about what might come next—filing an insurance claim or renting a new apartment or applying for a replacement passport.
But in those first few days, no matter the topic, their many conversations seemed to eventually curl in on themselves, coming to rest on the moment when they'd left their homes, unsure if they would ever come back. What did they take? What did they wish they could have taken?
These discussions seem to concentrate many of the strong feelings surrounding the fire and the lives they had lived before: nostalgia, sadness, longing. Their departures had demanded an impossible balancing of pragmatism and emotion. And in nearly every case, they led, eventually, to regret—over a host of unmet needs, yes, but more so over lost heirlooms and mementos, the objects that help give life to human memory and a sense of who we are as people. What happens, these conversations seemed to ask of the endless lists of forgotten belongings, when we lose them?
Pets—that continual source of companionship and adoration, so essential in times of crisis—sit continually atop the list for evacuees, so their accouterment comes along too. At Haven Human Society, an animal shelter outside Redding, California, Haleigh and Ashlyn McWhirter search for their Pomeranians, Bear and Skwizgaar (named after a cartoon character). The two dogs were staying with Haleigh's ex-boyfriend and, in the chaos of escape, he forgot to go into the yard and get them.
"The first things you grab are your file box and your dog; those are the things you grab," says Haleigh, on the verge of tears, struggling to understand how her pets could have been left behind. She and Ashlyn evacuated from their home nearby, taking boxes of important documents and as many clothes as they could carry. "I left a big pile: my grandpa's blanket, musical instrument, my hula hoops," Haleigh says, calling up a video on her phone that shows a line of homes charred almost beyond recognition. She had planned to go back and get those things but never made it there. Now, she notes, all she has left is a bag of clothes.
Some things simply can't be carried away, no matter what they mean to us. Writer Tony Stoltzfus ran into that problem as he prepared to evacuate. From a friend's house nearby, he shows off pictures of the leaded glass windows he painstakingly built to line the entrance to his home, a geometric labor of love—now melted away. After waiting in suspense for a week to hear whether his home survived, Stoltzfus is preparing to "buy a whole new life," as he puts it.
In the moment of the evacuation notice, he recalls, "you have no idea where the fire is because you don't get information. You look at the sky and you can't see anything. You think: 'Well, the firefighters are really good.' You think: 'I'm not going to take that because it will be disruptive to put it all back when we return.'"
That's how Stoltzfus ended up opting to save his computers, important documents, and $30,000 worth of books from the online bookstore he runs, which were uninsured. "I was really practical," he says. But it’s not the choice he would make again if he had the chance. Stolzfus mourns the loss of family photos, 25 years of journals, and his collection of handmade furniture. He worked as a furniture designer for many years. Among the items lost: the cherry dining room table he used to propose instead of an engagement ring. "The things that are gone are gone," he says with a sigh. "They only represent what's valuable to me; they aren't what's valuable to me."
That sentiment appears over and over in conversations about lost belongings. "Things are things," evacuees say, or "Everything can be replaced," or "It's just a house, plaster and wood."
Perhaps they say these phrases aloud so often because they are trying to convince themselves. The truth is we need some things to survive—clothing, medicine, identification. Many evacuees wish they'd brought warm clothes for the heavily air-conditioned shelters, or something to read to pass the time, or more medication because they hadn't anticipated being away from home for so long.
And perhaps the burnt mementos are so meaningful and so painful to lose because they promote a different kind of survival—the perpetuation of memory, especially memory of what is no longer here.
Take Brian Butler, who lost his motorhome to the fire after spending five minutes grabbing his dog, Bro-D ("he came with the name Brodie, but I changed the spelling to give him some street cred"), as well as his phone, wallet, and a fistful of medication. For him, talking about the things he didn't think to bring has become a way to talk about other kinds of loss. He sold his car last year after he couldn't keep up with costs. The motorhome was what he had left.
Butler is a wood sculptor; when his motorhome burned, he lost "all my poetry, all my carvings." And (here his voice breaks) "all the photos of my family." "I still have family," he says, "but we don't talk." Before the fire, he was estranged from his siblings, hurt and alone, living in his motorhome with only Bro-D for company. The photos were an anchor connecting him to what was once and what he barely dared hope could be again. To lose them was almost to lose the possibility itself.
Later, though, he also admits something else, under the blaring neon lights of the Red Cross shelter: "The nicest people I ever met in my life have been here," he says, "and not just the helpers. I mean, I made friends. I didn't have any friends before."
The idea of gaining something from a fire chafes against a key lesson that we're taught about disaster: that it can only take things from us. That idea is built on another, which casts our belongings as parts of us, propping up the scaffolding of our identities through lists—the things we like, the things we surround ourselves with, the things we choose to remember.
But Butler isn't the only one to flip the conversation on its head. At a different shelter across town, Naamon Fox ticks off his remaining possessions, among them: one shoe, one sock, and one glove. This motley collection is a result, he says, of a hasty exit. Fox, who has been homeless for 15 years, was displaced by the fire from his homemade shelter near the town of Old Shasta. At the evacuation center, he is actually better off—eating healthier, with better access to bathrooms and showers—than he's been in a decade, he says.
Fox remembers waking up around 3:30 a.m. to smoke and noise. He walked some 10 miles to keep ahead of the flames, waking slumbering residents along the way. Since he supports himself whittling walking sticks, he opted to bring his metal hacksaw, two wood chisels, a hammer, a roll of duct tape, and half a bag of candy.
"God forbid I think of something I needed, I just took a bunch of crap that weighs a lot, that I had no business carrying," he says with a wry grin. He wishes he had been thinking clearly enough to bring the matches for every pair and maybe some water. Still, he confesses, "I'm cleaner than I've been in a year and a half I've been trying to sit on my crass behavior because so many people lost so much. But I just want to do cartwheels."
It may be true that our things make ourselves. If it weren't, those moments before a potentially permanent departure wouldn't be so fraught or so tender. Memories of the things Butler, Stoltzfus, and the McWhirters left behind wouldn't sting so exquisitely.
But Fox—with his crooked smile and freshly washed hair, giddy with the coolness of the air-conditioning unit—has some thoughts about that too.
"In a fire, what you can't carry isn't yours," he says. "In the end, you're going to have what you have, and you're going to hope your fellow man is about your survival too."