Forged in Faith and the Getty Fire

October 30, 2019
A firefighter walks past houses burned in the Getty fire. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

I woke up at 3 a.m. Oct. 28 to sirens. One firetruck after another sped past my family’s home in Brentwood. I thought one of my neighbors was in trouble. But after the fifth firetruck drove by, I sensed something dangerous was happening. I opened my window. Smoke-filled skies with fierce orange flames were tearing through the hills and heading toward my neighbor’s home … and possibly ours.

I imagined our home in flames; every room burning until there was nothing left but debris and ashes. Why do our minds always entertain the worst possible outcomes? I screamed, waking up everyone in the house.

My mom, dad, brother and dog quickly scrambled into two cars, taking with us only valuables and photo albums as the police urged us to evacuate quicker.

Before we left, my dad hosed down the house, hoping he could protect it a little. We drove off separately and I imagined my dad inhaling the fumes as he sprayed down our home. Were they as toxic as everyone said? Please, God, don’t let my dad get sick. My fears were multiplying. First our house, then my dad?

My brother and I drove to a friend’s house in the Wilshire corridor. We stayed up all night watching the fire directly across from us through a high-rise view. The news showed live footage of firefighters and helicopters surrounding our neighborhood. I watched helplessly as the raging fires drew closer to our street.

I soon learned that the fires had destroyed several homes on Tigertail Road, which runs parallel to our street. I watched news anchors describing the catastrophic damage. Television cameras panned over the hills onto our street. Flames were everywhere.

My head was spinning and I began to feel nauseated. Tears rushed down my face. I thought of my parents, who sacrificed so much for us to live in this neighborhood. I thought of my neighbors and friends who lived close by. People I take long walks with; people who stop me on the streets when I’m walking my dog; all the neighbors who have remained strangers but still smile at me when I walk by;  people who bring tremendous happiness into my life. I imagined them gone.

I took a mental survey of everything I had left at home. My clothes, shoes, bags. I could always replace those; all the books I read, whose pages I’d folded and highlighted so that I could easily skim back to the “good parts” when I wanted to. My journals. I planned to use them as a blueprint to write my New York Times bestselling memoir in my late 60s. Now I can’t even describe my life, my feelings, and my challenges with accuracy. OK. So maybe I don’t need a memoir.

“I imagined my dad inhaling the fumes as he sprayed down our home. Were they as toxic as everyone said? Please, God, don’t let my dad get sick. My fears were multiplying. First my family’s house, then my dad?”

I thought of my room, which I spent so much time decorating, organizing and decluttering, per the advice of bestselling author Marie Kondo. I meditated there. I cried there. I had so many sleepovers and late-night talks with friends there. That place has been my sanctuary for 20 years. I longed for the familiarity of entering my room with the scent of unlit Voluspa candles and inspiring wall-quotes welcoming me. Losing access to that feeling was going to be painful.

I thought of God. How could he do this to me? To anyone? I had doubted God before, when I was too young to understand the importance of faith and spirituality. Days before the Getty fire, I wasn’t concerned about God at all. My mind didn’t venture that deep. Instead, I was concerned about what I was going to wear to a party and who was going to be there and if I would run into my ex-best friend who spread rumors about me when I was younger and alienated me from so many people for so many years. I thought about the shame I felt every time I saw her. And if I’d rather stay at home than risk seeing her again. 

I was overwhelmed with the adolescent thoughts that we all unconsciously carry into adulthood; the thoughts that prevent us from enjoying life fully because we are constantly evaluating ourselves through the lens of people we don’t really know anymore.

But as the fire continued to expand, I thought about how I pretend to forgive that girl and so many others every year on Yom Kippur but never really do. How I claim to “let go” of the past and begin anew every year but carry everything with me that I should have forgotten by now. How so many of us have our own fires running through our minds, constantly reminding us of our past, tearing us away from the present and turning our hopes and dreams into ashes as we look toward our future?

We scroll through social media, consuming information that likely will hurt us. We envy the bodies we don’t have, places we don’t visit and parties to which we aren’t invited. Most of us don’t have a sense of true belonging, even in our own communities. We grow suspicious of others; we wonder about their intentions and judge one another’s political views.

In the news, we see danger all around: children at risk of being shot in schools, swastikas graffitied on homes, rapists waiting to take advantage of women who will soon scream, “#MeToo.”

Later, my brother and I sneaked back into our neighborhood, where we were told the fire was contained. I wanted more of my stuff. And to be honest, I wanted to see how bad the damage was. There were dozens of firetrucks and firefighters along the road, dressed in the same uniform, with the same purpose, fighting the same fire. They were completely present. They cared. They were sacrificing their lives to serve others. They did it with passion and with a sense of duty.

And that is when the revelation struck. 

Some of the core values of Judaism revolve around everything I was witnessing: helping others, nurturing community, responsibility, being stewards of the Earth. We observe Shabbat to remain present. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, our collective passion for Israel binds us. We truly #NeverForget our people’s struggles.

But no matter how much we try to preserve one another and this Earth, everything and everyone we know will eventually be lost. Permanence isn’t possible. And I don’t want to doubt God because of a fire.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that loosely translates: “Man plans and God laughs.” Despite our meticulous planning, our path is and will always be unpredictable. Roadblocks will deter us and the fires in our neighborhoods will keep us on edge just like the fires ablaze in our minds.

We must put them out. We must embody the firefighters. We must put aside our differences and realize that together we can heal the world and one another. Most importantly, we must strive to serve.

As I write this, the fires are still burning in Brentwood. I continue to watch live coverage, and it seems that my house is still there. My family is alive and in good health. I will likely be able to access my journals when this is over. Besides sleep, I didn’t lose much to the Getty fire. But the revelations it sparked in me taught me lessons that I get to keep for life. And maybe sometimes it takes a loss of control to magnify our fears and anxieties. 

Perhaps at times we need to stare at bright orange flames directly in front of us to realize how insignificant our fears and anxieties are compared with the blessings we have: our families, our friends, the present moment, our faith.

Nicole Behnam is the Journal’s social media manager. 

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