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After the fire...


Last updated 12/20/2007 at Noon

Part 1 of a 3-part series

This is the first in a three-part series by Tim and Margaret O’Leary, whose Fallbrook home was destroyed by fire in November 2003 and has since been rebuilt. This installment focuses on the emotional difficulties that can follow a fire.

Our Fallbrook home burned down four years ago. Sometimes it seems like yesterday. Other days it feels a lifetime away.

Time may indeed heal all wounds, but it doesn’t erase the scars. They fade as days pass and seasons change. It is the reminders – smoke-streaked books shelved in our rebuilt garage, charred toys found while raking leaves, the acrid smoke from a wildfire just over the ridge – that keep the scars from ever going away.

The recent Rice Canyon Fire that roared through parts of Fallbrook and Rainbow ripped away another layer of our scar tissue. Driven west by hot, dry Santa Ana winds, the fire stopped about one-half mile east of our rebuilt home before it turned north and destroyed about 205 residences along with portions of groves, nurseries and oak forests.

Along with the destruction, the flames brought back searing memories for me and my family. We shall never forget returning from a Boston vacation to find blackened remains of a full life.

Charred studs and beams stood where once existed a vibrant, colorful home that had resonated with a 1950s funk and flair. Blackened desks, melted computers and obliterated files were all that remained of Margaret’s work as an appraiser and state probate referee. Everything -- clothes, family heirlooms, photographs, furniture, financial and tax records, money, keepsakes, art, a Pontiac Firebird, tools and countless personal treasures -- were suddenly gone.

Our world turned black as we moved first into a Temecula motel and then into a granny flat offered by a couple we knew from church. Sifting through the debris yielded only shards and glimpses of a life gone by. And, finally, a bulldozer shoved together a mountain of debris that was eventually hauled away by a flotilla of dump trucks.

The ‘dozer’s job was done and it left us standing in our gnawed-up driveway wondering how to rebuild our home and our lives. To survive, we had to wrestle with whipsaw emotions, insurance debacles and rebuilding hassles.

Friends rushed to help. Some pitched in. A couple from church offered to give us a couch, but sold it in a garage sale because we had no place to store it while our home was being rebuilt. Another friend from church gave us a pair of computer desks, and then asked for them back after his relocation plans changed.

For me, maintaining a shred of sanity was the most difficult challenge. For every up emotion there were four downs. I wince when I read newspaper stories telling of the aftermath of the recent wave of wildfires. I have shared the victims’ feelings of fear, relief, shock, dismay, denial, helplessness and hopelessness.

For those reading this who have lost their homes in the recent fires, there are no maps or manuals to show or tell you what to do next. There are no stats or studies to guide you through the climbs and dips of the emotional roller coaster. You will need humility, tenacity, support, faith, patience and love. Your life will never be the same, but it can still be good.

And although you have lost much, you will learn about resilience, friendship and the importance of people over possessions. You will realize many people offer to help, but it is your friends who roll up their sleeves, pitch in and then buy a pitcher of beer at the end of the day. You will realize friends ask how you’re doing out of care and concern. Others, you surmise, ask out of curiosity or idle chatter.

The road ahead will be bumpy. Money will be tight. Tempers will flare. Emotions will be strained. Marriages will be tested. But the wounds will heal, wisdom will come in glimpses and snatches and the scar tissue shall lessen as the years pass.


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