Op-Ed: If a megaphoned voice tells you to evacuate, go — and other lessons from California’s season of fire and flood

VENTURA, CA DECEMBER 19, 2017: Olivia Jacobson, 16, right, kisses her sister, Emma, 19, after the
Two sisters return to see their Ventura home destroyed by the Thomas fire on Dec. 19, 2017.
(Los Angeles Times)

We moved to Ventura a few years ago to escape the L.A. heat. Shortly before midnight Dec. 4, we were among thousands evacuated from our homes. A few hours later much of our neighborhood, including our house, was burned to the ground.

Now our hearts break for our neighbors up the road in Montecito, whose friends and family members have died, whose homes have been destroyed, whose town has been ravaged by the fires’ sequel: debris flows and mudslides.

We’re lucky to have survived in December, and we’re lucky to have a second, smaller place that’s been safe from fire and floods. But we’re not so lucky, too: Nearly all our belongings were in the house that was destroyed.

The odds are, you will never be chased from your home by flames or mud; you will probably never lose everything, right down to your favorite mug. But for those who worry and wonder, here are some field notes from disaster and its aftermath.


Wendy: When the power is out and vehicles flash strobe lights along your dark street, you may think it’s a teenage prank. When megaphoned voices order you to “evacuate immediately,” yet you see only tree branches getting roughed up by intense winds, you may turn to your spouse and say, “Do you think we really have to go?”

For those who worry and wonder, here are some field notes from disaster and its aftermath.

Stop rationalizing. Grab what you can — especially meds, undergarments and shoes without holes. If you have two cars, take both. Otherwise you’ll be visiting the shell of your purple Mini in the empty space that yesterday was your garage.

Michael: Don’t take sleep meds before climbing a steep hill at 4 a.m., after sneaking back into your still-burning neighborhood to see if your house still exists.


Wendy: Get back to your home as soon as it’s safe. Start sifting. Maybe you’ll find a few things intact or at least some recognizable pieces. I plan to make steppingstones out of china fragments and shovel heads. They’ll join the death-defying patches of garlic, mint and nasturtiums already generating a new garden. Mother Nature can be both wrathful and benevolent.

Michael: Sharpest gut punch: The loss of the original sheet music for hundreds of songs written by my father, Carl Sigman, along with tons of other memorabilia that conjured the magic of Manhattan’s Brill Building, where my parents met 70 years ago. My mom worked for Louis Prima, who kept an office there. My dad wrote the English lyric to “What Now My Love” (“How can I live through another day/Watching my dreams turn into ashes/And all my hopes into bits of clay”) and such other eerily apropos gems as “It’s All in the Game,” “I Have Felt the Fire,” “The World We Knew” and “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).” My dad’s mad scribblings of potential song titles on matchbooks, napkins and gas receipts are irreplaceable; the music is indestructible.

The loss of other mementos is less sad. I’m content to visualize my “Born to Run” gold record (a gift after I interviewed Bruce Springsteen when we were both 22) and my collection of memos, many handwritten, from my early years publishing LA Weekly. I feel a perverse delight when my mind’s eye sees this critique from the paper’s founder, Jay Levin: “I have ideas about how you can do your job better but I want to hear your ideas first. My ideas are….”

Wendy: Welcome the love and surprises — calls, texts, emails, treats — from family, friends, community: the package you don’t have to open to smell the home-made chocolate chip cookies, the gift box of necessities and luxuries you dip into when you feel desperate.

As my Bed Bath & Beyond replacement list swelled, I realized my coupons had been incinerated along with the purple Mini. But the Ventura store manager told me everyone whose home burned down gets 25% off! For, like, six months! And virtually all downtown Ventura merchants are offering discounts — except one, which I will control myself and not name. Online merchants have been generous, too.

Michael: OTOH, welcome to the world of rent gougers, lot scavengers, class action-hustling contingency lawyers and other shameless opportunists.

Wendy: Prep as best you can before disaster hits. Take pictures of everything you own. Save all data to the Cloud. If a natural disaster does destroy your house, Zillow photos, even from the era of a previous owner, can help with your insurance claim. Afterward, join community email lists. Seek out the Red Cross, whose reps will help with housing, counseling, even cash. Surviving means you did it right.

Michael: At the disaster assistance center, I was moved by the guidance of two people I’ve known since elementary school in far-off Long Island: Sue, who lost her home in Oakland’s 1991 fires and chairs the board of a nonprofit dedicated to helping wildfire survivors, and Peter, who lives nearby now.


The most surreal after-fire encounter: I’m commiserating with friends at the gym when another member butts in and says, “Should I text you a video of your house burning down?”

Wendy: When the things you’ve lost — photos, a plate your kid painted for you 25 years ago, Grandma’s bracelet you’d taken off just before bed — show up in your head and rip into your heart, let grief win. Remembering keeps things and their meaning alive in some dimension.

Michael: A day after the fire destroyed everything, I watched my elderly neighbors cry as they examined the debris that was the home they’d treasured for decades. It evoked waves of compassion that expanded, like a Big Bang in my chest, encompassing all suffering everywhere. Even now, that compassion coexists, weirdly, with my spasms of rage over, say, the hell of trying to get help from a real person at the phone company.

Wendy and Michael: This experience has exposed the essential rawness in each of us. So far, we’ve helped each other tolerate the high anxiety and occasional hair-trigger fury when something goes wrong.

Sometimes we nimbly ride the waves of uncertainty; sometimes we sink beneath them. Sometimes, we simply don’t believe our home is gone.

Michael Sigman, former publisher of LA Weekly, is a writer and music publisher. Wendy Block is a writer and political activist.

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