Can Memories Burn?

In light of the recent fires raging across California, I wanted to share an article I wrote after the Tubbs fires, in October of 2017. I am devastated for all the people who lost their lives and homes in the fires. I am saddened for the beautiful landscape of California that has been burned. But I am hopeful that God will bring amazing things out of this destruction.


I wanted to talk today about the Tubbs Fire in Northern California this past month.  The fire started Sunday October 8 during the evening and raged out of control for days. There were fires all throughout Sonoma and Napa County. According to the Press Democrat, the local Santa Rosa paper, as of Oct 18, “103,285 acres throughout Napa and Sonoma counties [have burned] and the death toll had reached 42 people.”

I know natural disasters happen all over the world every day, but this one hit home for me, literally. I was born and raised in Santa Rosa. I want to preface this by saying that my family and most of my friends have since moved away. I lived in two different neighborhoods from the ages of 6 to 17. Within one evening, both of those neighborhoods burned to the ground. By “burned to the ground,” I literally mean ashes, war-zone-type ashes. Within days, it was confirmed that part of my high school as well as my elementary school had burned. Silly things like the 7-11 where I went for Slurpees before high school tennis practice, burned down. I haven’t lived there in nearly 20 years, but as the first videos of the fires hit the internet, I was left with shock and tears of sadness. My whole childhood was spent in that town, and within a matter of hours, it was destroyed.

The first week of the fire, I found myself numb. I would wake up wondering if it was a bad dream, or if the fires were the new reality. I couldn’t imagine what the families must be going through. I found out that the house I grew up in had recently been sold to a new owner; I wondered if the new owners had already moved in. I wondered how the previous owners felt. Were they relieved it wasn’t them or did they feel some sort of guilt for escaping the fires? And then the personal questions came. How do I deal with the emotions I have, as I’m watching the houses burn? Do I have some sort of claim, even though it’s not really my house anymore? And then I realized I could never take my youngest child to see where I had grown up. As that thought lingered, it made me think about the concept of existence. If the houses I grew up in and my schools didn’t exist, did my childhood exist? How would my memories still exist in an area that didn’t exist anymore?

With only pictures left of my homes and my childhood, there’s a sense of mourning for that city. There is a sadness that I can’t express for the destruction of the beauty of the area. There have since been reconnections with long-lost friends from high school, as we reached out to see who still lived there, and whose families were affected. There were sighs of relief as we realized many of us, and our families, had moved away, and there were moments of fear for those that still lived there and were awaiting evacuation.

As I surfed the internet, I was dumbfounded by a picture of some wooden box-looking thing. I wondered what it was, and later learned they were wood shells with metal grids on them, used for sifting through the ashes to find personal belongings. One picture I saw was of a friend’s parent’s home, showing just dirt on the ground and about 12 metal-looking containers. When I asked what the containers were, I was told it was all they could find in the debris. It was all that was left of their belongings.

The devastation is immense and the sadness is overwhelming.  There are posts on Instagram,  as the town rallies together to support each other, saying, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” And so I’m left to wonder how these fires will change all of us. How will the victims pick up their lives from the ashes? What is God calling them to in these moments and through these experiences? I will await the glory stories. I will await the exciting news as lives are impacted for the better. I will wait for the smoke to clear and sift through the ashes inside my own soul and my own memories.

I know that God will bring miracles from these ashes. I know he will bring comfort in the midst of tragedy. I just wonder what all that will look like.

Have you had similar situations in your lives? How did you start to put the pieces back together?

Copyright 2018 Courtney Vallejo

Image Copyright 2017 Megan Destruel. All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission.