After the Fires: Searching for Meaning, Practicing Prayer

So we have arrived at “full containment” of the fires ravaging Northern California over the past two weeks. Keeping a close eye on the “containment” percentage has been but one of the obsessions affecting the local population through these days. Or at least those of us who had not lost our homes and were casting nervous eyes on the local hillsides to gauge the chances of it still happening.

Living not far from the oak and fir forests of Annadel State Park as I do, I used to look up at the nearby hills periodically and think that a fire would surely sweep through there someday. But I was just as sure that it would never jump down here to the flatlands, thick with residential neighborhoods, roads and schools.

It’s one thing for a fire to sweep up and across open canyons and ridges where only the wildlife and adjacent hillside homeowners need flee. But surely, by the time a large fire made its way down here or any other part of the city proper, firefighters would be in place to make their stand and repel it from entering neighborhoods.

That was before I saw what the fire on its very first night did to the Coffey Park neighborhood a few miles northwest of my home.

Natural catastrophe is God’s ‘free will’ visiting carnage upon his children, shrugging as nature always does, and saying, ‘Deal with it.’

Having seen photos and video footage of what was essentially a firestorm and then aerial photos in the aftermath showing vast neighborhoods in scenes that resembled Hiroshima or Dresden at the end of World War II, I will never be altogether confident again of what fire won’t do.

Now that I have seen first-hand what it can and has done, I bow down to fire as to a savage god.

I am shaken, chastened, joining with the ancients who first harnessed fire and quickly, intuitively, came to understand its glory, barbarity, and terrible destructive power.


The destruction of Coffey Park


According to the late mythologist Joseph Campbell in a series of lectures collected as Myths to Live By in 1964, fire may have been cultivated as long as 500,000 years ago, in the caves of Peking Man. This was long before modern homo-sapiens arrived on the scene some 40,000 years ago. Although Peking Man is known to have eaten his food raw, Campbell surmised that fire was more a source of fascination and fetishism than practicality. If so, then “Fire may well have been the first enshrined divinity of prehistoric man,” he wrote.

He then went on to add, “Fire is revered generally as a deity to this day.” This is easily attested to by the list of mythological fire gods in Wikipedia, which runs to 41 entries and does not claim to be comprehensive.

Over the past two weeks, those 41 fire gods aside, it has been the Hindu deity Shiva, God of Destruction, who strikes me as having most shown his face in the flames that engulfed Northern California.

As I write this, some 7,000-8,000 buildings have burned, almost 5,500 of those being homes where people used to live.

The death count stands at 32 and the property loss in excess of $1 billion.

All of that makes it by far the most destructive fire in California history, in a climate and topography not the least bit new to fire.


Burn baby, burn.

That’s what Shiva and Agni, Hinduism’s fire god, were roaring as they shot down the canyons and ravines of Mark West Springs Road on the fire’s first night and jumped six lanes of freeway to go on their murderous spree through densely populated residential neighborhoods. The fire also visited a mobile home park with the rather foreboding name of “Journey’s End,” as well as adjacent businesses and schools.

The speed and sprawl of the destruction was, even by the measure of lifelong fire professionals, astounding.

One of the ironies, of course, is that many people fleeing the flames and many more who love them began frantically praying, pleading with God to save them.

Exactly who do they think sent the fire raining down on them, ferocious as can be?


A few choice lines about the fire from my minister last Sunday in the pulpit:

“Nobody was punished. Nobody was saved. There was a fire.” 

Facts. What actually happened (a fire…), without any of the superstition, post-facto rationales, and search for greater “meaning” we humans so dearly love and need to append to our life experiences.

Of course there is “meaning” in such a destructive, epic event. It is pregnant with meaning.

But that meaning has nothing to do with any God who scares up winds, knocks down power poles, gets a few sparks going and then decides to burn some homes while sparing others.

Whatever God is, the idea of a Supreme Being “allowing” events like this to happen, in which some people lose their homes and even lives while others are mysteriously spared and see fit to proclaim, “God was watching over me!” falls apart on a number of counts.

That God as an actor and prayer-answerer in the world has a dismal batting average when it comes to saving human beings from relentless pain, torture and catastrophe.

That God didn’t save the the 123 million people who died in 20th century wars, despite a no-doubt huge number of them and their families offering up fervent prayers that they be spared. Adding insult here is that only 37 million of those deaths were military; the rest truly “innocent,” if you will, civilians felled by collateral damage, genocide and war-related famine.

That God cannot be let off the hook by claiming human “free will” is responsible for all the conflict and savagery we visit upon one another. Whose “free will” is involved in the fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes that exact such a devastating toll on our happiness and well-being?

Natural catastrophe is God’s “free will” visiting carnage upon his children, shrugging as nature always does, and saying, “Deal with it.” That’s essentially what God said to Job in one of the seminal and most deeply troubling books of the Bible.

But the reality is that that kind of God doesn’t exist, plain and simple. Nor does the case for prayers we offer up seeking her intervention to save us or our loved ones from harm.

Consider this: What kind of God would grant favors based upon how many prayers are being uttered on someone’s behalf? So hundreds of thousands of people pray ceaselessly for some celebrity, compelling God to heal his cancer, while a child with leukemia in some rural Asian hovel has only three people praying on her behalf and is thus shunned by God?

Isn’t this exactly backwards, in that those who have few people caring and praying for them on this earth are most in need of God’s compassionate intervention? And why doesn’t God just go ahead and heal both the celebrity and the poor child, given how precious life is and how merciful God is supposed to be?

Oh, I know: “Mysterious are the ways of the Lord.”


Fire in the fabled Sonoma County vineyards


And: Nothing noted above means that we should not pray, and that there is no God.

Prayer as a way of holding someone in your thoughts, of wishing them well and expressing your caring concern and love, has inestimable value for them. All of us ache to know we are cared for, that others understand and can commiserate with our pain.

So go ahead, say you’re “praying” or “thinking” of them, or “holding a good thought.” The exact language doesn’t matter, so get over yourself and don’t get hung up. If your friend is religious and you’re not, use the language that is meaningful for them and say you’re praying.  It all comes to the same: you are expressing empathy and compassion for their plight.

No, your prayer will not prevent fire from roaring down a hill and consuming their home if the conditions dictate. But it will offer them comfort and consolation in their grief. Without people willing and anxious to do that for us, how would we find any happiness and purpose at all in this life?

And now to the question: “Where was God in these fires?”

God was inside that man and his wife of 50-some years who spent hours submerged in a swimming pool together until her lungs failed and she died in his arms, peaceful as a sleeping kitten.

God was your neighbor who pounded on your door yelling and then dashed off to warn others, saving who knows how many people with whom he or she may have had only the most basic acquaintance.

God was in the Huntington Beach Fire Department, the Fremont Police, the National Guard, Cal-Fire, all of whose vehicles I espied at one time or other in recent days and got me to thinking, “Driving their truck up Highway 5 all the way from Huntington Beach to come fight our fires: how cool and caring is that?”

God was—and will long remain—in the huge relief effort coordinated by multiple agencies across the country, along with the church collection plates, bake sales, and lemonade stands that will be devoted to fire relief efforts in the near future.

God was in the hymns we sang and hugs we gave and the collection we took up for the dozen families in our church who lost their homes—but not their lives nor faith in the goodness of humanity— to the fire.

God was in my friend Mary this morning, who sent out a photo of her family standing in front of the rubble of what used to be their home and appended the caption, “We made it through and are ready to rebuild! Thx for your kind thoughts along the way.”

And finally but not least: God was in the awe that every observer of this event felt as the fire did what it didn’t seem possible it could do. That awe, that fear, that submission we have no choice but to feel at the raw power of nature, is one of the roots of religious sensibility.

It lets us know that there are forces far more powerful than ourselves at work in this awe-full and beautiful world.

That the only way to deal with them in their destructive mode—and even in their joyous and beautiful mode—is by banding together and sharing, in our extended families, our friendship circles, our community groups, our churches, our governmental agencies, in an effort to ease each other’s suffering, add to each other’s joy,  and care for each other’s souls. To offer each other comfort, restoration, commiseration, and a calm port in the storms that assail us.

The love therein—that’s where God is.

Where else could he or she possibly reside?


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at:

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Candle photo by Shinichiro Hamazaki, Tokyo, Japan

Photos of vineyard and Coffey Park destruction by the National Guard

8 comments to After the Fires: Searching for Meaning, Practicing Prayer

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Lovely post Andrew – captured many of my thoughts/feelings… living in Healdsburg, we were surrounded by fires on 3 sides, yet escaped the direct hit… fires are so damn capricious… We got as far as the “alert” stage (one step before evacuation), which did provide us an interesting experience in “values clarification”. Not surprisingly, it was humans, pets, family heirlooms, kids’ childhood creations, important “papers”, few pre-digital family photo albums and a few clothes… in that order – really, not too difficult when you get down to it. I too have reached a similar conclusion re: “thoughts and prayers”, being very touched by how many of our friends/family/work colleagues etc reached out to express their support and caring – literal meaning of prayer can be whatever it is to them, my interpretation is the simple, yet profound expression of connection/caring/empathy… My wife, Denise, has been moved to volunteer w/Red Cross, and is completing the last of her 3 day training today, “certified” to go help out at the shelters here in Sonoma Co as well as the next disaster anywhere in the nation… (less time for master gardening & bee keeping meetings!)… she said most of the 60 some folks in her “class” were either millennials or retired folks creating meaning by helping folks in need. Oh, fact checking here
    my friend – we homo-sapiens have actually been around some 200,000 years…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Same with me, Kevin. I kept my car packed all week in case I needed a getaway but I found I didn’t even need that much room. Mementos, mostly, a few clothing items, and, of course, my small cache of signed first edition books! :-) Only thing I regretted not having a place for was my bike—I was gonna hate losing that thing if it came to it.

      That gap between Peking Man and homo sapiens struck me as rather wide as well, but who was I to fact-check Joseph Campbell? Going back to the source now to see if I mis-read it, but turns out I didn’t. He places homo sapiens “proper” at the end of the Ice Age 40,000 years ago, while a 2009 Discover magazine article had it at 50,000 years and still another source at came out this way:

      “The replacement model of Christopher Stringer and Peter Andrews proposes that modern humans evolved from archaic humans 200,000-150,000 years ago only in Africa and then some of them migrated into the rest of the Old World replacing all of the Neandertals and other late archaic humans beginning around 60,000-40,000 years ago or somewhat earlier.”

      So it seems there is some distinction between what these sources refer to as “homo sapiens proper” or “modern humans” on the one hand (40-60K ago) and our direct “unmodern” homo sapien predecessors 200,000 or so years ago?

      • Norette  says:

        Beautiful thoughts Andy. I was one of many here in SoCal praying for you all. I asked for Gods love to steady their hearts for whatever comes. Kev told me you were OK and they rode it out. As we approach holiday time I hope everyone will find a way to give to the communities hit hard by this. This Friday my brother in law goes in for bypass, I will be asking for Gods special favor for him, knowing there are no favors but just in case—makes me feel better. Peace dear friend to the Great Roger and all the DCHM wild ones.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Thank you dear Norette! So good to hear from you. I think prayer as a means of holding someone close to your heart is a sacred thing, and all the better that it makes you feel better in the bargain. That’s a no-lose situation, seems to me. I have always found the term “As thy will be done” to be particularly felicitous. It doesn’t beg, accepts that the desired outcome might not occur, that stuff happens and life (and death) plays out as it will. There’s a dignity to the phrase that is very adult, tragic, even peaceful. There is no more for the petitioner to say…

          I’ll hold a thought (say a prayer!) for your bro-in-law. Blessings upon you both!

  • Angela  says:

    “Nobody was punished. Nobody was saved. There was a fire.” is the quote from your minister, and I agree: the ravages and lucky misses of nature are not visited upon us humans as either gifts or retaliations from God. They happen.

    It is we humans living on this planet who are shaping its current reality and its (and our) ultimate destiny. These increasingly severe ravages of nature are often consequences of human actions, directly or indirectly. Nature is of course unpredictable, yet we can see patterns. This fire can be partially traced from the extreme rainfall of last year, that resulted in higher than usual levels of vegetation, higher grass, denser brush, coupled with the freakishly high winds that fanned the blaze. Is this our “new normal”? The scale of this devastation surpasses anything ever seen before in the history of California, as does the damage from the multiple hurricanes from this season. The extreme nature of these disasters is not a coincidence, it is a trend.

    I am not sure how many wake-up calls (wildfires, hurricanes, gales, extreme levels of rainfall, drought, floods) it is going to take for us to realize that the wholesale plundering, building homes, roads and commercial enterprises in precarious landscapes are risky on many levels. Removing trees and eliminating wildlife habitats, using up or trashing the water table, the impact of cars and traffic all have to be reckoned with. Development as a measure of economic growth and economic health is an increasingly flawed and dangerous principle.

    I am not a Luddite or a Prepper, I do not grow all my own food and yes I use electricity and live on the grid. And I also think we can do better, to own up to what we are doing and take steps to protect this place we stand on, that we call our home, if only in self-interest and common sense.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You are right to be concerned with the whole schema of development and the industrial economy , Angela. The notion that we can and should sustain 3-4% and higher economic growth in perpetuity on a planet that isn’t getting any larger is unworkable and insane. Space colonization, here we come, is the only conceivable out we have, but exactly where does the money come from for that?

      And yes, these catastrophic weather events are playing out exactly—EXACTLY!—how the climate scientists have repeatedly warned us they would. One wonders how long the naysayers can hold sway—or more appropriately, perhaps—how long we the people will allow them to.

      I had thought to hold Rev. Pat Robertson out as the most crazed example of God purportedly “punishing” humanity, he of the “God let 9-11 happen because of liberals, abortion, gays and the ACLU.” This is both comic and reprehensible, but the truly alarming part of it is that he continues to have millions of followers across the land who continue to send him millions of dollars to spew such venomous nonsense. The fact that he still wields influence and isn’t relegated to some street corner or pages in a Flannery O’Connor-like novel tells us a lot about a rather-too-large segment of our population.


    THANK YOU KEVIN AND ANDREW, We ‘ve been monitoring the fires from the comfort of our couch and could only imagine the heartaches, passionate caring, adrenaline, and despair associated with everyone involved. Thats the interesting part of our “connected world” these days. Unless one is pretty directly involved or has friends (you guys) who are, then it just seems like another movie on the tube. Or if one actually muses on the reality of it all and can truly empathize with those affected then in some subliminal way we are there with you in spirit some how. Whether you feel our loving arms around you or not OUR energies are and were there. Thanks for your wonderful perspective on this and please be well.
    love patrick

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great point, Patrick. The capacity for empathy is one of the great distinguishing characteristics of humanity, but empathy (and concern) seem to increase in pretty much direct proportion to how close we are to the afflicted and endangered. The fact that modern media brings the otherwise anonymous right into our homes does make a material difference, to be sure—distant events would have drawn but a bare notice and virtually no aid from afar before modern media came along. Now, contributions for hurricane relief and such start coming in within hours from all over the country. But there’s nothing quite like actually knowing people in the trouble spot; that gives it a whole different and more urgent dimension.

      Thanks much for your kind words and concern. It is great to hear from you and so many others who checked in and commiserated the past couple of weeks.

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