What I learned from losing my home

GUEST OPInion /// Climate change


Some lessons about the fire’s menace I already knew. Our mountain home in Cornell that perished is where I grew up, and I foresaw the risk of losing it. Record-breaking heat waves had cooked the surrounding vegetation, which was severely parched by drought. So I lived daily with the threat that a stray spark or careless cigarette could incite disaster.

Al Gore and others at the Climate Reality training in Los Angeles further underscored the obvious peril, and they informed us trainees that California isn’t alone. Wildfire hazards are unprecedented globally. The training also gave a voice to veteran firefighters on the front lines at opposite ends of the globe, whose life experiences backed up warnings from academics and activists:

Changing weather patterns have rendered wildfires hotter, faster and harder to contain. The dangers now last well into fall and winter, taxing first responders to personal limits while overwhelming their resources and manpower.

But it’s one thing to know your space is in jeopardy and another to lose it altogether, along with the tragic losses of so many others.

Hundreds of souls in situations just like mine didn’t make it out alive. Nothing prepared me for that—for the death and destruction in the beloved state my heart swells to call Home. It’s schooled me on gratitude and opened my perspective on our majestic planet.

Here are a few of the simple lessons I’ve learned.

The first is that nature will not always wait until we are ready to respond to her. On the morning of Nov. 9, I wasn’t set to get up at 4 a.m., pack a few belongings and leave my home forever. I wasn’t prepared to be so needy in the following weeks that I accepted cash, clothing, food and shelter from generous friends and strangers.

I hadn’t planned for my past life to disappear and be replaced with a less certain one. But nature doesn’t delay her mandates so that we can dawdle. When she makes immediate pleas, we must listen. We must act.

The climate crisis is one such plea. We’ve smelled the smoke; now the flames are visible. Our planet’s alarm is sounding— through intense heat waves, wildfires, droughts, storms and floods. The only home we have is threatened, and there is an urgency in securing its safety for our children. Doing so requires that we flee the comfort of familiarity for uncertain and challenging decisions.

Sometimes when you lose something, it’s gone forever. The dream my father built for us— where he tended his garden, where he gasped his last breath—no longer bears witness of his memory. Like the fire that consumed so many homes and lives, the consequences of the climate crisis are largely irreversible. When Greenland’s white blanket has melted, we will not see it return.

The truth is that every threat, each tragedy and all losses present opportunity. Recent disasters on our home soil have touched countless hearts in unfathomable ways. Californians across the state have been affected. Which means that every one of us is primed for change.

And it’s happening already. Have you noticed feeling more gratitude of late? I certainly have. Maybe you’ve opened your home, given donations, shared kind words. That is the lotus that blooms from the mud.

We must seize this opportunity to accelerate progress in the right direction for future generations. The need is urgent and great. But the potential is, too.

Many of us now are preparing to rebuild or to help our communities rebuild. Let’s commit to do so sustainably, with patient compassion for each other and urgent attention to the climate crisis.

Let’s heed the lessons of recent tragedies regarding the shared home that sustains and shelters us all. Let’s work together like never before to achieve a peaceful, unified and deliberate transition away from fossil fuels and toward 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

Shannon Toma of Agoura Hills is a postdoctoral scholar at the UCLA Center for Educational Assessment. She also took part in the 2018 Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Los Angeles.

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