Loosing Everything to Fire!

Loosing Everything to Fire!

In 1979 I lost my the house of 10 years in the Laurel Canyon Fire, in Los Angeles. The house, my car, wallet, almost all my art work and all possessions I owned was gone.

It started with a faint almost indistinguishable word in the wind “fire”. The Santa Ana winds were blowing hard and I was outside sweeping, cleaning, and moving a pile of firewood to a better location.  When I looked could see that the tiny fire, at the bottom of a quarter-mile of dry chaparral, was going to be at my house in minutes.  I was thinking that I needed to tell the fire department what was happening. I was so nervous it took me three times to properly dial the fire department number that was on the wall near my rotary phone. What I got was an untrained girl (way pre 911) who seemed never to fathom the information I was trying to give her.    Ultimately I had to say to the girl “it’s here! at my house!” and threw the phone down. I ran from the house to the neighbor’s above my house where I had sent my two young girls to warn them. I jumped in the back of their car with them and we all backed, speeding down the steep hill past my house as I got my last look: the flames came up the hill and swirled by the roof overhang and rose 30 or more feet into the air sweeping across the roof. The house was doomed.

I got out of my neighbor’s car with my two little girls, Bethany and Meghan, holding each by a hand.  There we stood after escaping with our lives.  I was wearing speedo’s and a pair of flip flops, sweat pouring down me and probably fear in my eyes in front of the Canyon Country Store at the bottom of my hill.   I got to a phone and called my x, Cathleen, and my girl friend, Lorrie.   They both showed up and the girls went to their other house and I got to visit Laurie for a time.   Moving in was too intense for our relationship and probably helped end it, some time later. The next day my ashes and chimney decorated the front page of the LA Times.  [At least in my memory, we searched for the image and couldn’t find it.]

I spent the next 6 months talking about almost nothing else!   My children were born in that house, all my art is gone, my art collection art and books and all possessions!   My bank knew me by sight and began getting me back to normal with checks, etc.   But a credit card would take several weeks they said.   I said no, put yourself in my shoes, we have to do better than that and they did.   There I was: no drivers license, I had no identity except for the few people who might recognize me in the big city of Los Angeles.   Getting that license took some time.

But that stuff is just details.   What I really was feeling was my loss of identity as a person and an artist.   How could I be an artist if I had no work?   Without a driver’s license who was I?   I still had a job and when I showed up in borrowed cloths I was recognized.   When I sat at my desk I could still work on animation.   My identity slowly began to come back.   I was a human that at least did something and fit somewhere, even if homeless.   The next amazing thing that happened was that my friends and acquaintances came forth with all sorts of gifts; household items, clothing, and other thoughtful stuff.   I was stunned at the generosity.  The insurance company sent me an immediate check for $10,000 to see me through this initial period, that was a great help.  But the hardest thing they made me do was list all my possessions.   Literally a room by room list of all I had.   It was terrible and hard and I was incensed.   I paid for this coverage, do you think I and the other 23 households burned to the ground that day are somehow trying to cheat you???  No, sorry, they said, it’s just policy and I had to do it.   I cried during the process.  All that was missing was still in my memory, and it was deeply sad to be forced to think about every object I once had and put a price on it.

The rollercoaster continued for about 6 months as I got a small apartment on Venice Beach, an old VW bus and began to feel whole again.   But my obsession with the trauma kept up.   Slowly things began to fall into place. My identity returned. After all I am an artist, it’s within me, it’s who I am.   Not dependent on what I can show.   Within two years I actually had about as much stuff and art as I had before and had to move to a bigger place.  I started to realize that I wasn’t my possessions, I was the full person who simply had possessions.   I was who I was with or without stuff.  My being and self have nothing to do with the objects in my life, I am fully and completely myself. How else could I learn a lesson like that?   So many other insights and growths continued to show up that I began to realize the overall “good” of the situation outweighed the “bad.”   And by a long shot.  A certain confidence and strength became mine.   Some sensitivities, lessons and insights, I had no clue about before, just showed up.  I was remade.   I could talk about plenty else after that 6 month period, as the experience came fully into me, it actually enlightened me.

So now I have lived for almost 40 years only to face fire again.   We were put on level 1 evacuation notice by the fire folk working on the Miller Complex of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Fire fall of 2017 in the Applegate of Southern Oregon .   There were three fires each about 1 1/2 miles away from my home of 27 years on Carberry Creek Road.  I’ve watched my mind play with all of that again, this time, luckily, in sort of slow motion and with knowledge and experience. Having lost all of my worldly possessions once and learned first hand, that it is not the end of the world, now allowed me to relax this time around and simply prepare to evacuate.

I’m hoping that my story may have some meaning to my neighbors here in the Applegate who may have been facing some of what I’ve already been through or anyone where this kind of experience may show up.   I hope that some of this story may add some reflection and hope to what’s going on for you.  There is a tomorrow.   All will be alright.  Life comes back in all it’s wonderful ways and with some new learnings, insights, and growth that you can have no idea about at this point.

Let’s all thank the firefighters who got us through this.  In Laurel Canyon I never even saw a firefighter, it was all over for me before they could respond. Here they have worked tirelessly for weeks and finally the fires are out and skies are clear.

Greeley Wells

2 thoughts on “Loosing Everything to Fire!

  1. Wow, Greeley, very powerful words! I haven’t known you as well or for as long as many others of your friends, but I feel like we are brothers. To hear about what happened to you those “many” years ago was a shock to me. It’s a lesson that when you meet someone, you have no idea about their lives and what they may have endured before the day you meet. Only if they decide to share with you, do you know how they may have suffered – and bounced back – on the journey that they (and all of us) are on.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

    • Beautiful words and thoughts David. Yes, so true. Even we ourselves move on and “forget” until something comes along to wake us up again. A real blessing that it could turn around and be such a profoundly positive experience after all. I hope it’s and inspiration to folks.
      Thank you!

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