Anytime anyone asks me where I am from, their eyes go wide as Santa Barbara, California rolls off my tongue. Responses range from, “Wow, that is the most beautiful place I have ever been,” to “Do you know the show Psych? That was based there, right?” I can’t help but feel a sense of Santa Barbara pride — it’s a celebrity retirement community situated between lush coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean. My hometown was even ranked #1 for best weather in the United States in 2018!

But if you have kept up with Southern California news this year, you must be thinking that’s a joke. U.S. News and World Report must have confused the word “best” with “most extreme”. This past year, Santa Barbara County has experienced multiples fires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest fire recorded in California history, plus a major heat wave, as well as a mudslide that killed multiple people.

Since I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, I have experienced countless fires. That is the norm if you are a Southern California local. In fact, with every new fire, I have learned to shut off “panic mode” and just put my faith in the firefighters, because, well, what can I do? However, this does not mean that I am any less afraid.

Fires are crazy: They ignite suddenly, and grow fast! Each time, my house, my friends’ houses, and the rest of the community’s houses were all at risk of going up in flames. To put it in perspective, the recent Thomas Fire was bigger than the size of New York City.

The day before the Thomas Fire started, everything was perfectly normal, blue and beautiful, and then all of a sudden, as if overnight, Santa Barbara looked like a war zone. Everything became grey, ashy, and smokey and you couldn’t be outside without a mask. No one can predict when a fire will start, but when the blaze starts, it moves fast, and in minutes or hours you can be on an evacuation notice.

Here is a list of things my family takes with us each time we’re evacuated:

  1. Family photos and family memories — these are irreplaceable

  2. Valuables — jewelry, a painting, that one stuffed animal that got me through middle school

  3. You realize that everything else can be replaced.

Although fires are very destructive and terrifying, there is a lot I have learned from experiencing so many. They’ve taught me how to appreciate what I have. I have learned that in the end you can always replace things, and while a home is important, it is the people in it that make it what it is. As a fire continues to grow, the community grows closer and more loving. Everyone around you is open to helping one another. It shows you the power of human nature. People find unity and strength through the disaster.

It is truly terrifying not knowing what you, your friends, or the whole community will or will not come back to after returning from being evacuated. And the thing is, you have no power over it. I’ve found it helps reduce my stress if I can hold that in my mind: I’m powerless over the fire, so it’s out of my control. All you can do is hope for the best and thank everyone who is risking their life to fight the fire for your town and community.