On Sunday, August 16, 2020, early morning thunder and lightning storms across Northern California sparked a series of wildfires, which burned approximately 1.2 million acres in the week that followed. This acreage is estimated to be 25 times larger than the wildfire event of the preceding year1.
Like many others, I found myself preparing for a possible evacuation, and considering what matters most in a time of emergent crisis such as this. Although we were not in immediate danger, we chose to take advantage of the advanced warning, especially knowing how quickly these fires can turn, become entrapment hazards and be devastating. As my family discussed our evacuation plans, routes and destinations, we began making the important decisions about what to take and what could be left behind. Naturally, we started with the most urgent and critical physiological needs: what would we take for sustaining life? What items would we need for food, water, shelter, clothing, warmth and sleep? Then we added the emergency first aid kit and other items for responding to medical needs we may encounter on our journey. Once these were packed, we considered what would we need for the safety and security of ourselves and loved ones. We withdrew cash to have on hand, we pulled all of the relevant documents for the mortgage, vehicle titles, insurance papers, checkbooks, birth records and passports. We packed items for protection and preservation. We prepared the computers, hard drives and charging cables we would need for communication and connection with the outside world, including employers. These were the easy steps, and if the need to evacuate were accelerated, we knew we could survive with just these items.
In retrospect, it was a fascinating exercise to walk through each room of my home, considering each item and reflecting on the inherent value, including whether or not it could be replaced. I reflected on the memories and stories of a lifetime, evaluating what went into the box to take with me, and what could have been left behind. The process of prioritizing what tangible objects have irreplaceable value and justifying every inch of space and weight to be transported. It wasn’t the furniture and decorations or the “stuff,” but the photo albums, the images of sentiment, the special gifts from loved ones, and symbols of gratitude from teammates. I am grateful for the time and opportunity to reflect through what matters most to me in terms of the very human need of love and belonging. As I reflect on this experience through the frame of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs2, I realize the items that would normally symbolize achievement and self-esteem, such as degrees and plaques on the walls of my office, I very quickly dismissed, realizing that the value is not in the item itself, but rather carried inside me. If needed, I can have them printed again. They are but mere symbols of attainment, confidence and esteem. Lastly, the need for self-actualization is also carried within us. The need for creativity, spontaneity, meaning and purpose cannot be contained within an object. It is the pure embodiment of what it means to be human. We carry this within us wherever we go, whatever we face and however we move forward.
Although we had ample time to prepare in advance, many people did not have the time or warning when these fires erupted. Many people did not have the luxury of strolling through to choose what could be salvaged. Even for those who were able to evacuate safely, many lost everything. After the evacuation warning was lifted for our area, I was both relieved and pensive, reflecting and grieving without words, only a quiet heaviness in my heart. My heart was grieving for the tremendous loss. I began reaching out to those friends and colleagues, whom I knew were potentially impacted. One colleague lost the home where he and his wife raised their children. Another had structural damage at their place of business, yet most everyone remarked that their family, livestock and pets were evacuated safely. All expressed some version of the sentiment, “We were able to save what mattered most – our family.”
In the wake of such tragic loss and devastation, may we be encouraged knowing at the heart of the human spirit, we are resilient. Like our beloved Sequoia sempervirens, we carry within us the capacity, the creativity, the inspiration, and the power to rise up from the ashes and foster new growth. More than the sum of our “stuff,” our legacy is that which we choose to create in moments like these. May we work together collectively to learn, lead and leave a legacy together for future generations.
1 Kim, S. (2020). California wildfires 25 times bigger than this time last year as 1.4 million acres burned. Newsweek, retrieved on August 30, 2020 from https://www.newsweek.com/california-wildfires-update-gavin-newsom-fires-25-times-bigger-this-year-1527431.
2 Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, (50) 370-396.