Twice Touched by Fire, This Californian is Still Dreamin’

It's been two months since devastating wildfires swept through southern California, and while more than 2,200 San Diego families lost their homes, the crisis—for now—is over. The fires that chased and terrified us last fall are now just something my wife, daughter and I mention as we sit beside the Christmas tree counting our blessings. But while all is seemingly calm and bright in our home this holiday week, inside me, uneasiness still stirs. Not only because so many people, including good friends, have sadly lost everything, and not only because the threat of a future fire still looms. But also because, for the first time in 25 years, I've actually begun to question my decision to live in this place I've so often called paradise.

Surviving two hellish wildfires in four years will do that to you. It gave us pause to ponder our attachment to home, and what that means. My decision to move here seemed like a good one at the time: I was an Iowa boy with images of golden, endless California summers when I chose San Diego for college and beyond. I thought it was the best place in America to live—and still believe that, most days. But the fires have left me worried, wondering if we should continue to put up with this very dark side of utopia, which you don't see in the brochures or hear about in any of those Beach Boys songs. On Thursday night of what we now refer to as "The Fire Week"—when the winds changed, the temperature dropped, and we finally realized we were probably going to get through this storm—my wife turned to me and smiled, wearily. "I love San Diego," she said, "but I don't want to go through this again."

We've talked since about moving. But our deep love for this town, and our respect for those who've lost everything, who rolled up their sleeves and started over in the same spot, have persuaded us to stay, too. I suspect most of you will understand, especially you Kansans with your tornadoes, and you Floridians with your hurricanes, and you Oregonians with your floods. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered aloud why anyone in his right mind would live in New Orleans post-Katrina. But how can any of us judge them? Staying is a difficult decision with unknown consequences, but for us, leaving would be harder. In a way, the fires brought me closer to my neighbors than I ever have been. I guess we must be willing to go through these periodic nightmares to keep living out our California dreams. Why? Because it's home.