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News reports tell us that many people who lost their homes to the October fires are upset that fire tourist “looky-loos” descending on the rubble of their streets are adding further insult to the grievous injury they have already suffered.

This is an understandable response, and I feel for them. But it seems to me that there is much more to this phenomenon than mere voyeurism, so I would like to offer another perspective. I do so as someone who didn’t lose his own home but, like most all county residents, I have many friends and acquaintances who did. And, like everyone connected emotionally to this beloved landscape and community of ours, I share in the grief of so much loss.

I got up to Fountaingrove for the first time recently, at about sunset. I did so with a kind of fear and trembling, not wanting to be obviously craning my neck nor feasting with morbid curiosity on the pain of others. I would be taking no grinning selfies amidst the ruins. But I did feel a strong desire and emotional need to see and breathe in the actual, material, right-there-in-front-of-me extent of the devastation. I had to view it in real time, with all my senses, to bring the enormity of the loss into full perspective.

And like everyone else who was touched by this event, I had to grieve.

I was a hospice volunteer for many years and have attended the deaths of more friends and loved ones than I can any longer count. And though every person’s death sends ripples through their own community of family, friends and neighbors, those deaths still largely beget grief on an individualized scale.

The fires, however, were my first personal experience of community grief, of widespread trauma affecting an entire population.

Yet within the collective trauma, each person, in the privacy of their own fears and anguish, still has to reckon with their sense of loss, still has to make peace with the images now seared into memory of their world on fire, of flames licking at and then overcoming so many sites that they had held dear.

I drove slowly though the side streets off Fountain Grove Parkway, beholding entire blocks leveled as though by bombs. World War II photos of Hiroshima and Dresden came to mind — the world as rubble and remnant of the grandiosity that once was. Then I went looking for the house, or what is now merely the “property,” of my friends Mary and Steve. I had been in their home multiple times, sat eating, drinking and working in that living room, dining room, study and deck. Their home had always been a welcoming one, well lived-in and friendly. Part of me didn’t want to face what had become of it — and another part needed to.

Despite my familiarity with the property, I passed by it twice, so disorienting was the specter of chaos still pervading the streets. Finally, I noted the painted house number on the curb, so I parked and got out. Then I stood there, for a long time, my eyes scanning left and right, my mind trying to piece together what had been where, my heart heavy for my friends’ loss.

The home had felt so spacious and open in its time, but now, with but a few beams and pillars hanging at crooked angles, it looked surprisingly small, stunted, forlorn. As if it, after the humans had fled to safety, had been left to fight on its own and not been up to the task.

I couldn’t help marveling at the merciless damage the fire had wrought. The whole scene made me feel just as small and humbled as Mary and Steve’s home had felt to me. Not unlike, in a different context, beholding the grandeur of an old European cathedral or an all-powerful natural setting like Yosemite Valley. One always feels insignificant in such settings, leading to feelings of awe and, ultimately, submission to powers greater than oneself. All of which is at the very root of religious sensibility.

Ultimately, I see looky-looism as simply the crass, unthinking version of a universal pull to behold scenes of a kind of sacred power. And that our pilgrimages to such sites are not, at base, to revel in others’ misery. Rather, they invite us to pay homage, to come to terms with the awe-full power of the cosmos and to feel whatever solidarity and comfort we can draw from beholding and sharing our experience with one another.

Andrew Hidas is a Santa Rosa communications consultant and blogger at andrewhidas.com.

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