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What Surviving the Most Expensive Fire in U.S. History Taught Me About Life

By Betty Withrow January 19, 2017 Mindset

This last summer, here in Big Sur, California, we were transformed by fire. The Soberanes Fire, started by a careless camper with an illegal campfire, became the longest-burning fire in the history of Monterey County.

It was also the most expensive fire in the history of the United States. For weeks upon weeks, it ravaged the area, burning up over 70 homes in its second night and consuming other buildings as it progressed.

Losing Everything

Among those homes lost was that of my oldest friend in the area. She was a woman I have known and shared much with for over forty years. In a flash, everything she had built disappeared, and some of my other friends had the same sudden disaster visited upon them.

My heart broke as I thought of it.

I live to the south of that area, and as the fire moved to the south, day after day, I did what I could to be prepared in case my ranch had to face the trial by fire. I felt lucky that I had the advantage of time to prepare.

The last time a fire had come through this area, we had less than 24 hours before it was on our side of the hill. We were fortunate and blessed with people who came and stayed and fought the fire, with success. Would this time be different? With all the resources of the firefighters stretched so thin, it was hard to tell what would happen.

Business Felt the Loss

At the same time, all business in Big Sur came to a screeching halt. Everybody had losses of over fifty per cent for almost two months. No visitor wanted to be in the smoke, feeling the energy of the fear all the locals felt. Fire hoses were everywhere. Charities and fundraisers took place almost every day to help those who had lost everything.

My own business took a heavy hit, too. I had to close my hospitality offerings, and my wholesale customers had no orders from my honey business. I had to spend what money I had saved for the ranch, to rent a bulldozer that my son drove to create clearance in the surrounding forest, so that if “it” came to us, we would have a fighting chance.

Survival Became a Constant Obsession

With no end to the slow and agonizing process of waiting in sight, looking at the daily fire map became almost an obsession. How many days would it be until we knew what we would face?

Day by day, over 70 bulldozers made fire lines in the wild back country – no houses threatened on the west now – but the fire began to turn to the east, threatening Carmel Valley and surrounding communities.

I felt disoriented, sad beyond measure and afraid. I was angry that our summer had been ruined. This huge, and almost unbearably alive creature of fire had taken over all of our lives. The fire felt more real than we humans did, in a strange way.

I was close to panic, even though I wasn’t in immediate danger. I saw our dreams for having a great autumn season disappear, as slowly we all realized that the tourists had found something else to do, even after the fire was out. After 68 days of fire activity, they had given up on the area.

Healing and Re-engaging with Life

I am blessed with an amazing coach, who has been helping me to develop my business of coaching writers. One day, on a group call, I began to fall apart emotionally, and I could feel my stomach tighten as I realized I was having trouble talking. She cut me off short.

“Listen,” she said. “You have to focus on the mission. Why should the important books that need to be written not get done because you are going through something? Take back your energy and use what is going on to make yourself stronger.” She was seeing right into me and right through me, as she so often does.

My first reaction was to become furious, although I said nothing of the kind. I admit that it took me hours to get past feeling infuriated by this “tough love” statement. Still, I knew that she was right, so I began to look within for other ways of dealing with what was going on and how I felt.

Gratitude for the Gifts the Fire Gave

I turned within to find what gifts could be coming to me. As I thought about the feelings I was having, I saw the gifts. They were many.

The threat I was facing, of needing to run with only a carload of items, had made it crystal clear what things were important and what were not. As I lived out of suitcases for weeks, I looked around me at what was left and asked myself why any of the things that were left were still there. I got very organized!

Over the next few weeks, I gained a huge gift of concentration, of stepping past my own self-perceived limitations, and getting on with the show. Forcing myself to look past the moment and into what I could learn from it gave me a sense of hope and of purpose. I like to make use of anything that comes along, be it good, bad, or indifferent. I began to see ways that my creativity was actually growing and my emotions were roaring.

It was a rollercoaster. One minute I felt so happy, in a way that I couldn’t explain, and the next felt consumed by fear. I thought of what was happening to everyone in the area, and how I might be able to be of help. I used up all my physical energy in making sure I had done everything I could do to protect the place I love, where I have lived for almost 44 years.

Going Deeper with Reflection on My New Life

Staying on the surface of life was unbearable, so I stepped into a deeper level. I spent time contemplating what was going on in my soul. The awareness of the elements – and their power to change what we are into what we can be – grew in my mind and in my feelings as a theme. The awareness became a point of stability that I could refer to, no matter how things went.

I called hope and fortitude into myself, and gave thanks for every moment that I had of rest, or of comfort, in a new way.

New insights came – the pressure of the experience could have value. I thought, “This is how gems are formed.” The image of a different kind of fire appeared in my awareness, an inner fire, one that heals. It showed itself at first as a wild force and then gradually became slower, more concentrating, clearer. It became a green light living within me, a healing force. I learned more about trusting my intuition as I watched my inner awareness.

I became more resourceful as I scrambled to make up for the shortfalls in my business. I spent more time than ever before taking care of myself, something that I had often overlooked earlier in life.

Mother Nature Started to Heal Too

Now, during the winter storms that are saturating the area with rain we have awaited for so long, the feeling is so different that it’s not easy to remember the way those months felt, even though they were so recent.

Time and the strength of nature are covering up the sore places, making things new. Nature’s huge display of variation and the change of the season are making things look different. New grasses are rising in the burned areas. People are rebuilding. Spring will come, after a while, and it will be beautiful.

Have you ever experienced a fire or another natural disaster? How did you face it? How did you both prepare and recover? Please share what you learned and how you rebuilt your life.

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The Author

Betty Withrow is a creativity and life purpose coach, helping artistic and professional women to find a deeper engagement with their life processes, to use the skills and experience we have in creating a dynamic third-act life. Clarity of purpose, vivid life experiences, and a true sense of legacy are her special interests. She is the author of “Prevail: Seven Keys to Create a Personal Victory”. Visit her website

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