My hometown of Ojai is only accessible by four two-lane roads, any or all of which can be cut off at any time. During the Thomas Fire, this vulnerability became glaringly evident. On the third night, the fire had nearly ringed the town and Santa Ana winds were predicted to fan the flames over the mountainsides, potentially trapping people in the valley below. Watching from my evacuation motel, it didn’t look too hopeful for my beloved community. So it felt miraculous to wake up on Thursday morning and find most of the city spared.
As the Ojai community comes to grips about this disaster, helping those who suffered damage, and especially those who lost everything, there’s a lot to reflect about.
We’re realizing that when it comes down to it, all we have is each other. And people have come together: “Ojai Strong” relief programs and gatherings are connecting us and reminding us of what a small community can be at its best.
What’s crucial is that we take the lessons from this fire and keep applying them when there is no disaster, because it clarified a lot of things we need to remember...
1. Connections Build Strength
Back in the day, everyone was connected to everyone else, be it in the clan or the village. And that was a good thing. The American ideal of rugged individualism is not that healthy for us -- literally. Did you know that people who have more social connections are less prone to get diseases and even to die?
After the Thomas Fire, the most connected fire victims had the earliest help getting their “Go Fund Me” page up, a place to stay, basic supplies and offers of help. But guess what? The community also set up organizations and websites with the goal of not leaving anyone behind.
That feels good, even if we haven’t been directly involved. Because at some level we know that...
2. A Community is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link
The organization I founded and led for a decade, the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation had as a vision: “To weave the fabric of community together so tightly no child will fall through.”
In our current disaster, we’re actively weaving the fabric of our community together so tightly that no fire victim can fall through.
As we get good at that, in times of non-disaster then maybe we can focus on weaving the fabric of our community together so tightly that no one becomes homeless, the lonely are cared for, and everyone has enough to eat.
The non-disaster benefits of this community-weaving skill go on and on. But only if we...
3. Pay Attention to How We Communicate
During the fire there was a lot of attention paid to how we communicated. We asked each other how we were doing, were our houses safe. We reached out to people we didn’t know to share information. We created guidelines about posting accurate information online. We thanked the fire fighters, the information sharers, each other.
It’s easier to communicate when we all have something in common, and cracks will likely reappear once normal life resumes. But just imagine for a moment if we carry that spirit of caring and communication into more contentious issues such as tourism, short term rentals, traffic, water.
The disaster was good communications practice. It also helped us see that...
4. Everyone has a Role to Play
Caregivers gave care, communicators communicated, organizers organized, surveyors surveyed, photographers photographed, cooks cooked. We each did something according to our capacity. I was touched by the different ways people helped and led, whether filming streets all over the Valley for those who were evacuated far away, or delivering pizza to firefighters, or helping a stray dog find its owners, or rallying the community to raise funds and donations.
In the face of such a scary situation, when there’s so much loss, it’s easy to feel powerless. But watching my community self-organize, with so many leaders emerging, I felt like I was in good hands.
In non-disaster times, maybe we can keep that going. After all, even though we can’t do everything, we can each do something in service to the larger community. We need the logistics people and we need the relationships people, we need the protectors and defenders and we need the opposers. We need the sign painters and the money raisers and the bull dozer drivers and the website builders.
Because even though we may not be in an active disaster, current times call for us to each to play the role we can in response to world and local events. And speaking of current times, the fire was a good reminder of how important it is to...
5. Disconnect from the Hype
If you’re like me, you’ve been hyper-vigilant in coping with the perceived long-term disaster unfolding on the national stage since the November, 2016 election. The unhealthily adrenalized state brought on by the fire, combined with watching the national news, nearly tipped me over the edge.
Because I was so glued to my phone, and the media, and all the updates, imagining the worst as I refreshed my apps by the minute, I was happily surprised upon returning to find that not everything in the Ojai Valley is a charred apocalyptic moonscape (although plenty of places are).
The disaster was a good reminder that technology is both a friend and an enemy to our peace of mind.
In non-disaster times, I’m resolved to be tethered to it a little less often, so that I can enjoy the actual chirping birds and in-person people who are actually around me... and be more available to my community as it needs me.