I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve always dismissed California fire season in the same way as California earthquakes–treating them as just part of the territory. A necessary evil. Unfortunately, I truly didn’t understand the devastation fire can have–until it threatened the one place I consider home.

I’m even more ashamed that this provided the empathy I should have had all along.

I grew up in St. Helena, California, in the heart of the Napa Valley. We moved to Napa when I was 2, and to St. Helena when I was 4, and I lived in the same house until I went to grad school at age 25. I’ve always carried my town with me, not just as a place–but with the people from there who shaped me–ones I still turn to today.

When the Atlas Fire hit, I was on the phone with my father, and I didn’t think much of it at first. I thought back to a previous conversation with a friend, when I heard about how people in Northern California made particular efforts to clear away brush in order to avoid the devastation seen from Southern California fires. The fire wouldn’t spread too quickly, I thought.

How wrong I was. My home, usually sequestered from tragedy, from pain–my own Shire, as it were–was now facing the flames of Mount Doom.

Perhaps it’s all too fitting, then, that Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” is on The Desolation of Smaug soundtrack. Smaug, like the Northern California fires, was indiscriminate in his anger, destroying the city of Lake-town without hesitation of what it would do, or who would be affected.

And now, we pick up the pieces. Granted, Santa Rosa and Sonoma have more to clean up than Napa County does, and I am thankful that St. Helena and its surrounding towns are safe.

There are others who are much worse off. People with houses of mere rubble. Loved ones lost.

We have to confront how we are going to move forward. What now? What possible recourse do we have?

We start by using the change to shape us further.

No longer do I have trouble finding the necessary recognition, the necessary empathy, when it comes to the characters I write, their relationships, and what happens to them. All I have to do is remember my sick, horrid queasiness when an un-contained fire moved toward my home community. When there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I also have a fire scene in one of my eight works-in-progress that will probably have to be completely rewritten because of this. But it will be better, in the end.

I am using my anger, my angst, to build something better.

In a word, we have community, and each other. We have art. And like this woman who lost her home, we can use it to build beauty from the ashes.

And we must.

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