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Wildfire victims ponder the question

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By Greg Dobbs

Where do we even start?
For people in Northern California right now who’ve been sifting through the ashes of their lives that’s what they’ve got to be asking: Where do we start? How do we begin to rebuild? When will we ever again feel normal? And our question here in the high country of Colorado is will we ever have to ask something similar ourselves?
At every catastrophe I’ve ever covered — whether fire or flood, upheaval from an earthquake or convulsion from a war — sometimes survivors stand up above the ruins with their children on their shoulders and their shirts on their backs and little more. Not only do their communities look like war zones; they themselves look like refugees from a war.
And yes, many start by sifting. I saw it after Hurricane Katrina, where I met families calmly sifting through the debris of their houses to salvage a toy or two for their kids. I also saw it after a cataclysmic earthquake in Yemen, where the search was far more frantic: families were sifting through the rubble of their dwellings for the remains of their kids.
It’s almost always happening, somewhere. A wire service report in the wake of the truck bomb that killed hundreds last month in Mogadishu describes “desperate relatives (digging) through the rubble with their bare hands in search of scores said to be missing.”
It can give survivors comfort or closure or simply more heartache. It doesn’t necessarily give them a new start.  
At least, though, whether in California or Colorado, we have an edge. Because there are differences between loss in our nation and loss elsewhere. I’ve covered catastrophes abroad — from Beirut to Baghdad to Belfast to the Palestinian Territories — where whenever I went back, even years after the dust settled, rubble still sat in place. Here in America, people do get up and clean up and find some way to start all over again. It is part of a quality that’s hard to define but you know it when you see it: the indomitable American spirit.
Of course another difference is, we have resources that most nations don’t have. Not just money, but another quality of the American spirit: the spirit of giving. In my experience, most countries have little culture of charity and less of volunteerism. Here we do. From service clubs to outreach organizations to churches to the newest form of helping our fellow citizens, GoFundMe pages. And from what I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in Evergreen, the culture is even stronger in our mountain communities than it is in metro Denver. Not to mention national aid organizations like The Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
In the aftermath of disasters, I’ve seen agencies like these responding within hours. People need water? Done. Baby formula? Done. Underclothes? Done. Shelter? Done. American refugees don’t live for years on a dirt floor with only a tent to protect them from the elements. And when it comes to the big picture of shattered infrastructure, some of the money raised for disaster relief typically is set aside to fix that too. Eventually, after this season of hurricanes, you’ll see it in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico. It just won’t be obvious until the people themselves are secure.    
We can understand why someone in fire-ravaged Santa Rosa today would be asking the same question we would ask here: “Where do we even start?” But someone tomorrow will have an answer. In other parts of the world, it’s an answer they wouldn’t always get.

Greg Dobbs is a 30-year Evergreen resident. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a regular Courier columnist.