I live in Thousand Oaks, California and we’ve been hit by multiple tragedies in recent weeks. First, on November 7th, I awoke at midnight to the sounds of sirens and helicopters overhead. It was the tragic shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill that claimed 12 innocent lives. This occurred just one mile from my home. 

Then, as our community was clearing the carnage and dealing with the grief and pain, two fires started along with strong winds; the “Hill Fire” and the “Woolsey Fire” (named for where they originated.) At midnight, we got the message of a mandatory evacuation. So I jumped from bed, grabbed our “Go Bag” and we drove our already-packed cars through the flames along Santa Rosa Valley to the safety of our son’s home in nearby Oxnard. 

For days on end, we and almost all our local friends sat by our televisions to hear the latest evacuation orders and to watch as the homes and businesses of people we know went up in flames, burned completely to the ground. Life goes on, of course, but the fear and sadness was always there and we never closed both eyes at once (metaphorically) because the next alert might be imminent. 

The rescue and relief efforts were epic! Firefighters from all over came together to help spare us from the simultaneous total tragedy that Paradise, California was experiencing from the “Camp Fire.” Helicopters scooped water from Westlake and Lake Sherwood in an assembly-line fashion, one behind the other, and then doused the fires in the surrounding hills. Super Scoopers came in with that red retardant and painted the local mountain tops red. The number of lives and homes they saved was astounding! What heroic and well-executed measures they took. I so admire the first responders and emergency personnel. My training as an Army combat medic long ago helped me understand what they had to deal with, at least a little. May God bless all of them. 

On Wednesday, November 14th, as the air smelled of ashes and the hills had all gone black, I spoke at a seminar for California Lutheran University, where I’m the Entrepreneur in Residence. We debated whether to hold the event but the community was clearly ready for something to do besides “fire watch.” A full house turned out and we talked about the importance of coming together and communicating better. My seminar was about How to use Public Speaking to do what needs to be done. CLU sponsored it at their HUB101 Coworking facility. Virtually everyone in attendance had been evacuated once or more like me. When I offered to donate the proceeds from my book and product sales to the relief effort everyone stepped up and we sold out completely!

The next day I rode my motorcycle through the region to see the extent of the damage. I rode Las Virgenes Canyon, Mulholland Highway, Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, and Potrero Road through Camarillo and Lake Sherwood. The amount of damage was big and the number of untouched homes was also impressive. Then…a few days later I rode Kanan Dume Road from Malibu to Agoura Hills. 

There was so much damage that it didn’t seem there had ever been any civilization of that area! The hills were black for miles and miles! It is breathtaking. The fire was so hot that it took even telephone poles down to a blackened nub. ALL of the ground cover was gone. It broke my heart to see this scenic drive so devastated. 

This week, after two days of healing rains, my morning hiking group returned to the trails on Wednesday and Friday. We hike three days every week at sunrise; six miles roundtrip, for fitness and friendship. I’ve posted photos here to show you the landscape where we hiked. At first we were stunned and saddened, then we remembered past fires and the rebirth of the landscape in the Spring. Even this soon after these fires we can already see tiny green sprouts emerging through the ashes! 

Nature needs the fires. It’s normal for California plant life to burn away and re-emerge every few years. The problem is, people have populated these areas, and that’s when the tragedies come. There is no place on Earth that is completely safe. There are hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, freezes, dangerous winds, droughts, volcanic eruptions and tidal waves. When you select your home, you get your dangerous circumstances by default. 

I consider it a wonderful privilege to live here in California. The weather is excellent almost all year. It only rains between November and April in Southern California and that means many wonderful days in the mountains, at the beach and even in the desert. I accept the reality of the risks while at the same time, I grieve for those who have been impacted and sympathize with those who were hurt. 

Please remember to count your blessings along with your challenges this Holiday Season. Sure, there’s plenty to be scared of, but life goes on despite our fears. Do what you can do diminish the risks but reach out and help each other, show love where you can and make this world a better place. 

In the Spirit of Growth, 

Jim Cathcart 

These are the flowers and memories placed as tribute to the victims of the shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill
Photo credits to: Bob Palevak, Franklin Cofod, Bruce Barkis and Neil Paton.