After an arduous and extremely surreal couple of days on the run, we are finally back home.

Apart from the ash covering the stairs and landing in front of our place, things are looking pretty normal around here. However, that sigh of relief that I breathed upon seeing our apartment complex still standing was followed quickly by a prayer for the thousands who have now found themselves homeless. Or, perhaps even worse, still do not know the status of their place — as is the case with one of our church families.

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Today, we awoke at my father-in-law’s place before six in the morning to the sound of sirens wailing in the near distance. After making sure things were settled down at church on Monday, we drove straight up to Orange County to my father-in-law’s place because they were uncomfortably close to the Santiago Fire (apparently — inexplicably — the result of arson). We wanted to makes sure we were there to help them evacuate, if necessary. After all, our church community has one another, but we are the only family around to help my father-in-law.

It was the sound of police sirens that first alerted us to the evacuation up in Rancho Bernardo, so when we heard them in OC my heart was pounding as I raced to the computer to find out what was happening. Unfortunately, they are still using a dial-up connection to the internet. I was not aware that people still used dial-up. This was, perhaps, a divine test of my patience, as pages that take more than five seconds or so to load usually drive me nuts. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to locate the number to the local sheriff and to the Santiago Fire hotline. I received assurances from both that the danger was not imminent, and there were no evacuations for this community. This, despite the fact that we could see the flames from the second-floor balcony and ash was beginning to fall like snow.

We spent the remainder of the morning calling every church family we could, making sure everyone was alright. Throughout the morning, we kept receiving the good report that many were able to repopulate their homes. We also kept in contact with the local sheriff’s department and fire hotline to make sure there were no local evacuations. After receiving assurances that things were stabilizing around OC, we made the trek down the 5 freeway back to San Diego. We passed through the area of the Camp Pendleton fires, which had caused intermittent closings of the 5 throughout the morning. Though this fire was “small” in comparison to some of the beasts that have been raging across Southern California, there is something extremely emotional about seeing a wildfire up close. I’m just glad that our daughter was sleeping as we passed through the hellish, billowing smoke that blackened the afternoon sky.

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Something cynical inside me wants to rebel against the constant media barrage and emotional manipulation — the Kenny G tracks playing over photo montages of people weeping in front of their burning homes, the breathless “on the scene” reporters, the grandstanding talking heads using the crisis to yammer on about their pet political stance.

Firefighters battling Southern California blazes, from SignOnSanDiego.comAnd yet, there is no denying some of what has unfortunately almost become cliche during these kinds of tragedies. There can be no doubt about the heroism of the hundreds of firefighters who have fought these blazes day and night. With hardly enough time to rest for a moment, these brave men & women have put their lives on the line to save lives and homes. One family lost their home, but firefighters found a safe moment to dash into the home and grab some photos before all was lost. As one firefighter said during an interview, “Every home is our home.”

I don’t mean to sound gratuitous in saying this (I never use this as sermon material), but I am reminded of 9/11. We were on the ragged edge of disaster there as well — living just across the bridge to the city in Palisades Park. We have heard it so many times, but when everyone else was running away from the burning towers hundreds of firefighters were running toward them. And we have seen the same selfless heroism on display this week.

In fact, the reason we felt secure in leaving my father-in-law in Orange County was because of the incredible work of the understaffed firefighters to make a stand against the Santiago Fire. Almost on sheer will it seems, they have beaten back the beast.

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The crazed dash to evacuate our place really put things into perspective for us in terms of what is really important. I was really pleased to receive my Junky Car Club membership in the mail a couple of weeks ago, but I wasn’t quite ready to live out their motto, “Learning to live with less so that we can give more” by losing everything we own to the firestorm. However, amidst the sirens and smoke, ash and adrenaline as we evacuated the blaze, what really mattered was getting our family out of there.

I am so thankful for my wife and daughter. My wife was the first one to bring panicked church members together to pray — and not only for the winds to cease and the fire to fall back, but for our community to seek God’s heart. During the non-stop news reports, our four-year old daughter kept asking if our place burned down. We tried explaining that we hoped things were fine, but even if we lost our place that God would still take care of us. Finally, we realized she was concerned that her dolls would be hurt and that she was not there to help them escape. Today, we heard a story on the radio about a man who bought out the local big box retailer for children’s backpacks. Our daughter asked us why he did that, and we explained that there were lots of kids at the stadium who lost all of their stuff in the fires. Her eyes lit up and she said earnestly, “I have toys at home. I can share with them!”

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There is an uneasy calm as things get back to “normal” around here. Will tomorrow bring another phone call about a friend who lost a home? When can we stop wearing masks outside? Can the talking heads and pundits wait until at least next week before launching their politicized tirades against whomever?

I am worn out. And, even in saying that, I feel guilty because I know there are many others just down the street who do not have luxury of typing those words in the comfort of their home. All I can do is join the psalmist and pray:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

Thank you for your prayer, concern and offers of shelter and help — you have been God’s tangible grace to our family. May God continue to have mercy on all of us here.