Hell in heaven

When I moved to San Diego, California, three years ago, they told me it would be heaven, a promise not far from the truth. In these lovely parts of the country not only there are flowers and fruits year round, but the mild weather rarely reaches the nineties in the heat of summer and a frozen winter is obsolete. Geraniums bloom throughout the year and roses last well into January. After years of Chicago winter, we celebrated the discard of our down coats, boots, wool scarves and, yes, even gloves. We now walk in our sandals and are reminded of God's glory with each sunset on the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

But, nothing should be taken for granted. In a world where a “merger” appears to be the ultimate plan, our little heaven has followed suit and for the past week has merged with hell.

Though California is not a stranger to brush fires, the news of yet another fire came down hard as it was too close to home. We stayed up late on Saturday night to watch the details and eventually, having said a few prayers, went to bed.

Sunday morning, as I woke up, the sunrise resembled a sunset. I rubbed my eyes to make sure it wasn't part of a dream. A bright red sun rose above my neighbor's roof. The sky had the maroon and orange reflections of dusk. I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air to feel as if I circled a bon fire. Small particles of ash danced in the air and gently landed like the snowflakes of long ago. Cinder covered the glass table outside and the smoky air reminded me of Charshanbeh Soori. When the dog refused to go for a walk, I decided he knew best and came back inside.

Up to this point, I don't think any of us had grasped the magnitude of the disaster. Unlike an earthquake which moves and shakes and destroys in an instant, a fire is a sleek, sly enemy. When the news shows brush fires behind the mountains, somehow you feel isolated, spared. Like death itself, it can approach in slow steps to choke. No warning and no hope for prevention, man submits once more to his oldest enemy.  The government assumes responsibility for the expenses, people storm with good will from all over the place, and money pours in. But the devastating destruction knows no limit. Recovery from such disasters is never complete.

Once I was reassured of my own family's safety, I wanted to do my share to help. Alas, all the help hotlines were busy and after hours of trying, I could not get through to any of the key organizations. So, like any able and willing citizen, I decided to drive to the nearest shelter.

“You mean you're driving into the smoke?” My husband expressed his shock.

“I'm a smoker, it shouldn't bother me,” I said before leaving.

I soon found out I needed to be a registered volunteer in order to offer any help. Someone gave me the address of the headquarters for Red Cross where I might register for training. I decided as long as I had traveled the distance I might as well donate blood. It took a good hour to fill the necessary forms and to line up in the outside smoky air, but in the end, I was registered as a blood donor. I gladly left the now more polluted air-thanks to fumes from the blood bank bus– to join the air conditioned interior. After a long rest, a young nurse approached my bed.

“Ummm, I'm sorry, but we can't take your blood.”

“You cant?”

“No, maim. There's a history of cancer.”


“So you may give cancer to the recipient.”

“You're kidding, right?”

She was not. As I stepped down from the bus, I couldn't help my own Cynicism. Did their refusal have anything to do with my recent trip to Iran?

Oh, but I was determined and would not give up so easily. I roamed around and spoke to a few of the evacuees to offer my home, guest room and all the comfort my family could offer. “No, thank you,” they said, “we'd rather commiserate with other folks.”

I understood and respected their decision until someone told me how they really did not trust going to the home of a complete stranger.

That thought had never crossed my mind.

I drove through smoke polluted streets to 5th Street to the Red Cross main office. The receptionist told me the information would soon arrive as to where we could get the orientation needed for volunteers. I waited alongside many others. Time passed and no one came out. Finally, a woman with an attitude came to yell at all of us, “You're in the way. Anyone wanting to volunteer, stay outside until we call you!”

I did.

The outside air can kill you these days. I was not equipped with an oxygen mask. Deciding how my dead body would not be a very effective volunteer, I quit before my lungs would.

Once again at home, I have the Red Cross hotline on redial and hope to get through. I listen to a congressman who has come on television, “If they need helicopters,” he says, “Then all they have to do is pick up the phone!” I wonder what he could possibly mean? Is there a phone in the midst of that fire? People's livelihood is being destroyed, thousands of acres of green land consumed by fire, hundreds are injured, precious lives are lost, and he needs a phone call?

Hell on earth, indeed. Not because the flowers and trees are gone, not for the lack of clean air, but for the absence of compassion from higher authorities.

Hey Mr. Congressman: The innocent victims of California fire have no time for a phone call. The system makes me sick. When so many of us are willing to give, why should red tape keep us away? How can humanity survive when help itself is doomed helpless?

I sit back, wonder and sigh. I shall donate the damn money, but won't it be a little too late?


Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California.

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