Healing Through Destruction

by Emalee Mims on December 14, 2018


I was born and raised in Redding, a small town in northern California. It doesn’t have much to offer in the way of nightlife or high-end shopping, but what it lacks in social activities, it makes up for in beauty. I have lived in the south of Spain and Monterey Bay. I have traveled to three continents and hiked to breathtaking views. Even so, Redding is still my favorite place. It is my home and it has a strong hold on my heart. Not everyone feels the way I do, in fact, it is common for others to give me a blank stare when I tell them where I’m from. To their own misfortune, most people don’t even realize that there is more to California after Sacramento.

However, this summer millions around the world learned the name of Redding, California. On July 23, a fire began in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area about 15 miles from my house. Whiskeytown has always been a favorite place for locals to hike, boat, kayak or just spend the day on Brandy Creek Beach with their family. I myself had spent countless hours there hiking to different waterfalls and discovering new trails. It was my haven, my place to free my soul and sit in nature. Knowing that the fire was ravaging an area so dear to the community was difficult to face. We had no idea how much worse it was going to get.

On July 26, the fire lost control and began moving closer to the city. I was sitting in class that night listening to the panicked words of my classmates. I heard one person say the fire had “jumped the river”. The words meant little to me and I maintained my calm. When our teacher let us out two hours early, I started to be concerned. Despite this, I didn’t really begin to be afraid until I spoke with my mom and she told me not to come home. I didn’t fully understand what was happening, why my mother sounded so worried, why my sister was asking me which of my things I wanted her to pack. It soon became clear when I left the classroom and found myself in what seemed like an apocalyptic scene out of movie. Cars were lined up as far as the eye could see, some people pulling trailers, boats, dirt bikes and quads. Horns were honking, people were yelling. Hundreds of cars all trying to escape the mess that was created out of frenzy. There was an intense orange glow to the west that seemed like it would overtake everything any minute. You could feel the fear spreading through the town like a physical force taking hold.

My whole family was split up and I didn’t know where to go. I was instructed to meet everyone at my grandma’s, but I knew that my mom and sister were struggling to fit all of our stuff, my eight-month-old niece, our three dogs and my cat into my mom’s small car. I wanted to go home to help them, but that wasn’t an option. The freeway had been blocked off and the police were directing cars to go south. After about two hours, I finally made it to my grandmother’s. A drive that would normally take 10 minutes. I was the first of my family to arrive, but shortly after my whole family was reunited. Between all of us, there were six dogs and eleven people. The house was total chaos, but we were safe, and we were together. When we turned on the news, we heard about the fire tornado that ripped through neighborhoods and burned the homes of over a thousand people. No one slept that night.

The next few days were a blur. The smoke was almost unbearable. You could feel the fear of the whole town. Thousands of people had been displaced and weren’t sure if they had a home to go back to. Even more mourned the lives of a firefighter, a contracted worker and a grandmother and her two young grandchildren. We all felt lost, but we came together. As terrifying and distressing the whole situation was, I will never forget how much our community came together. The strength that everyone found during this tragic event will never cease to amaze me.

Five days after we evacuated, my family and I returned to our homes. We hadn’t lost anything but a few days of comfort in our home we had so long taken for granted. Too many people had lost everything. Once the Carr fire was almost fully contained we thought we would have time to heal. Time to breath. Unfortunately, that was when the Hirz fire began and shortly after that the Delta Fire. More homes lost. More beautiful trees burned.

The Carr fire reached 100% containment on August 30, the Hirz fire on September 7 and the Delta fire a month later on October 7. We were finally able to breath. Masks were no longer needed to leave our homes. We could finally begin to rebuild and heal.

Personally, I was at a loss. I have always been in love with the greens hills that surround the town and the breathtaking trails that I had hiked for years. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so much pain for those that had lost everything. But it anguished me to see my favorite place on Earth burned away. The lush green trees turned black with char. The lakes and rivers littered with ash. I mourned for some time before I decided it was time to let myself move on.

A friend of mine asked me to hike a ten-mile portion of the PCT with her and on that hike, I found my peace. I was reminded how much nature revived me and how much I felt at home surrounded by trees. I realized that I had grown comfortable in the Whiskeytown area and that I had built a border around me, not allowing myself to venture outside its walls. After seeing how beautiful the PCT hike was, I knew I needed to continue to explore. I started hiking outside of my comfort zone; finding new places that offered me sanctuary. Fortunately, an abundance of hiking trails were saved from the fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest which is only forty-five minutes from my house. Through exploring that area and expanding my horizons, I have begun to heal. It is still extremely hard for me to face the truth of the destruction. I cried just today looking at pictures of my favorite hike which is no longer there. I am healing and growing every day. As is the community and the nature that surrounds it.

For all those affected by the Carr, Hirz, Delta, Camp, Woolsey and Mendocino fires, my heart is with you. There are no guidelines to healing. Revive yourself in whatever way works for you. But, if you are an adventurer like myself, I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Stand in the woods, climb to the top of a mountain, bike a hundred miles, whatever your passion is. Even if it is new to you.  Let nature mend your broken heart. Let it embrace you and love you as you love it.

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