Driving south on 101, we came upon a caravan of bright red fire trucks, each proudly flying an American flag and carrying the name of a different Southern California city.
Torrance. El Segundo. Manhattan Beach. Redondo Beach.
They were heading home.
We rolled down the windows, and as we passed each truck, we waved a salute.
And then we started to cry.
Crying at fire trucks is not something we usually do, but you know how it is. These brave man and women came from far and wide for one reason and one reason only — to help us survive.
We’ve just concluded 17 days of shock, fear and sadness that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. The damage is worse than anything we could have imagined.
In a banquet room filled to capacity, people were asked how many of them lost their homes, and many — too many — hands went into the air. Then people were asked, how many are close to someone who lost a home, and virtually every hand in the room went up.
When friends talk about sifting through what remains of their family homes, what is there to say, except … we are sorry beyond words, and we will do whatever we can to support you.
Since the fires began, there has been so much courage and love, measured in countless acts of kindness and generosity. Somehow the most difficult time brings out the best in us.
I long ago lost count of all the big and small examples of people’s generosity. It might be a business owner providing discounts to victims of the fires. It might be a donation to a nonprofit from an unexpected source, or one of the many fundraising drives that pop up here, there and everywhere.
It could be youngsters organizing a canned food drive, or selling cookies at a sidewalk stand, or organizing a pancake breakfast. It could be the heroism of the first responders, or all the folks who made sure the first responders knew of our gratitude. It could be a gift of clothing, or place to sleep. It could be the armies of volunteers, nonprofit workers and public servants, some of whom lost their homes and then showed up to help others.
And let me stop here and pay tribute to the people who work at this hometown newspaper. I am no innocent bystander, but I know how tirelessly they have worked. No group of journalists ever did more to demonstrate their commitment to community service, even as they were dealing with their own fire-related adversities. They have been indispensable — and as the rebuilding efforts proceeds, they will continue to be indispensable.
You may have noticed that people want to be together right now — to share stories, laugh a little and share their gratitude for being alive. We are bound together by what we’ve experienced.
Our morning walks take longer because neighbors are using the least excuse to gather and talk. We say to strangers, how are you doing? And then we get to know each other.
There will be obstacles to overcome, hardships that will test our patience.
The public and private costs will be daunting. While we’re rebuilding, we will scramble to find temporary housing for the people who lost their homes — and for the people who will do the work of rebuilding those homes. We’ll also need to support the businesses and institutions at risk of losing employees who can’t find housing, and we will need to devise ways to help those who lost their jobs when businesses were destroyed.
In the race to rebuild, we may encounter disagreements that will challenge our capacity to stay together.
But we will be OK if we can hold close to our hearts our determination to support each other, if we never forget that this is our place.
In our national conversation, the angriest and meanest among us want Americans to believe that we shouldn’t look out for each other. They should come to Sonoma County and see what can be accomplished by people with generous hearts.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.