“It’s gone,” my husband said. He was glued to a screen, studying maps of the fire, watching it lick up pear orchards, walnut groves, and vineyards. News reports showed flames dancing on ridges and rolling down mountains. We couldn’t take our eyes off bombers screaming over treetops, and weary firefighters surrounded by smoke and familiar landmarks covered in ash.
“What do you mean, gone?”
“Our house, look, it’s gone,” Gary said. He guided the cursor to a fire map with its familiar red blobs that represent flames and the smaller marks that represent hot spots. Our street was buried under a blob. For a minute, I couldn’t breathe.
Our century-old home, the grand old farmhouse we painstakingly refurbished. Gone? I pictured Lauren’s finger paintings in the office, Gary’s model Studebaker in the living room, my beloved ceramic cake plate in the kitchen. How can all that be gone?
Two years ago, we watched a similar scenario unfold on our computer. The Valley Fire ripped through Cobb Mountain in Northern California, and helpless, my family watched while it swallowed our sweet house and its spectacular views. Our tenant and his dog made it out with a handful of belongings, and only the shell of his truck marked the spot where our house used to be.
Eight months ago, extraordinary as it might seem, another fire blasted into our lives. The Tubbs Fire traveled 12 miles in only three hours and gobbled up more than 8,000 structures. For days, we watched the ebb and flow of fire maps evolve, cringing when the lines got close. We prayed, bargaining with God to show us mercy. That time, our tenant escaped with unmatched socks and a cellphone, and his car was alight as he drove away. Tubbs consumed our house along with so many others.
That loss hit us hard because we loved that property and dreamed about moving there again. Our tenant, Gene, lived there for 20 years and was part of the tapestry of our lives.
Watching flames once again dominating our screens, I wondered what the odds are of losing a home to a fire. Of losing two homes to a fire? Is it even conceivable that one family could lose three homes to a fire?
At that moment a message came in, notifying us that the map was incorrect. Our neighborhood, and specifically our house, was intact.
“This is insane,” I said.
In the morning, an updated map showed that the fire came within 2,000 feet of our front door. More than 3,000 firefighters were on the scene, plus nearly 400 engines, 50 dozers, 15 helicopters, and 51 water tenders. If our house survives, it will defy the odds. But if it burns, we’ll beat the odds anyway. We’ll be outliers who’ve lost three homes to wildfires. What are the chances?
One of the blessings of enduring these losses, of experiencing cancer, and of being bad at math, is that I know in a profound way that statistics are meaningless. All of us get only one crack at life, and every single one of us can tell stories of stupendous unlikelihoods — of bizarre circumstances that really did happen.
Four years ago, an hour before my first chemo session, my oncologist told me I have a 40 percent chance that cancer will come back, and that if it does, it’ll kill me.
But even then, I didn’t care about the graph on his screen. I cared about what was happening to me, about what my own graph looked like. And I knew, even then, that the only piece of the puzzle within my control is my attitude. I was embarking on a whole new experience, learning about a world I didn’t know existed. Factories of chemo infusions boil away in our cities’ infrastructures, and I didn’t even know it. What an adventure.
Statistics can help us learn about behaviors and patterns. They can tell us that if you keep shrubs away from your house, it’ll be less likely to burn. And if you don’t smoke, you’ll be less likely to get cancer. But infernos can roll like a tidal wave and cancer can sneak in through a back door, even when you’re doing everything right.
As I write, a fire still batters the majestic mountains surrounding our home. In two months, I have another tenuous cancer checkup. No one knows how the dust will settle. What are the odds that I can get through this situation with optimism, grace, hope, and peace?
I’m beating the odds. My own odds — the only ones that matter.
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