Three Lessons Learned in a Firestorm

Entrance To Olive View Hospital - Directly Across The Street
The most devastating fire in the history of the City of Los Angeles occurred on November 14, 2008 in the residential community of Sylmar. Whipped that night by hurricane-force winds gusting 80 mph, the fire burned 11,262 acres and destroyed over 600 buildings – 489 of those were single-family homes. The Los Angeles Times reported that, around midnight, “..tall walls of flames quickly surrounded Olive View Medical Center, as embers blew down streets, catching trees and shrubs on fire around the hospital, and before long, the hospital was surrounded on all sides by fire.” The fire was so hot that a fire captain described their hoses “melting into the concrete streets.” I live directly across the street from Olive View Hospital and the following Sunday, I gave a message to my church called, “Three Lessons Learned in a Firestorm.”  What follows is an edited version of that message...

During this Thanksgiving season, I am a doubly-blessed man and I want to share some things with you that God revealed to me last week. I call these “sledge-hammer” revelations because, while we often get gentle nudgings from God, every so often God will speak to you in a manner that just shakes you to your core and you know you’ll never be the same. 

How many of you know that so very often during times when life is at its very worst, God shows up and is at His very best? That in the middle of the firestorms of life God can turn any crisis into a triumph? What I want to share with you today is more of a personal testimony than a sermon, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate to share during this Thanksgiving week. I am a doubly–blessed, thankful man and I serve an awesome God..! 

Many of you know that I live right across the street from Olive View Hospital. In this rural community, I live on about an acre of property and this is a typical ranch property in this part of Sylmar. I have some outbuildings, a horse corral, gazebo, a free standing patio cover and about seventeen Olive trees. Three hundred feet of my property fronts Olive View Drive and the hospital parking lot is directly across the street. From the north/east corner of my property I am just a few hundred feet from the bottom most portion of the mountain range that was on fire. I am going to try to convey in words what went on that night, but so far I haven’t found words that really describes it. The photos you’ll see on the screen give a sense of what happened in my neighborhood.

My phone woke me up at 11 pm and it was a friend of mine who is the Safety Administrator for the City of Glendale. He could see a very large fire in Sylmar from his house and told me that I should evacuate immediately. The only thing I had time to do in the house was to put my Bible in my backpack and set it by the front door. But I wasn’t going anywhere that night. 

When I first saw the fire, it was three miles away and the entire mountain slope northeast of me was already a raging wind-whipped inferno. The Santa Ana winds were coming directly at me. The fire started and spread so quickly that there was not a single fire engine on the scene of this huge out-of-control fire. I spoke quickly to my neighbors who were evacuating and went to work laying out my long hoses. I started wetting down everything I could on my property. 

When the Santa Ana’s blow down from the mountains, they move down the slopes and blow along the ground. All the smoke and ash was moving at forty to fifty miles an hour at ground level. It was soon so smoky that you couldn’t be outside for more than a minute or two before your lungs would ache and your eyes would burn so badly you couldn’t keep them open. I put on a smoke mask and goggles and other gear that I had in my emergency kit from work.

At midnight we were in the middle of the fire storm. Long before that, all the residents in the area had fled. There had been no official evacuation, just hundreds of cars with people fleeing for their lives. Now, in the middle of the firestorm, there was no one but about fifty fire engines and fire trucks parked along Olive View Drive and emergency vehicles driving back and forth.  

Directly Across The Street
I could see buildings in back of Olive View Hospital fully engulfed. The fire was so fast and so intense that L.A. County Fire just sat in their trucks and engines and helplessly watched over one hundred of the County buildings, offices, electrical sub-stations, warehouses, utility buildings and their Children’s Center complex burn to the ground. The fire was too wild, too fast and too unpredictable. In front of the hospital, directly across the street from me, all the planted areas and the trees in the middle of the asphalt parking lot were on fire. A piece of heavy construction equipment in one of the lots was burning. Everything was on fire.

At 1:30 am we were being hit with the strongest Santa Ana gusts that I’d ever experienced in the 20 years I’ve lived there. Once the fire line was down to Olive View Drive, the gusts would send huge fire showers of embers blasting across the street and directly toward me. I can only describe it being as if someone had lit a huge bonfire of grass and leaves, put a very powerful fan in back of it and the burning leaves and twigs were blowing straight at you. Every time the gusts blew another flurry of embers on my property, spot fires would ignite. From midnight to 5:30 am, I constantly ran back and forth with my hoses and put out fires. I put out dozens and dozens of fires on my property and several that had started on my neighbor’s property. I figured I must have put out at least thirty to fifty spot fires that night but it could have easily been a hundred or more. 

Across The Intersection - Bledsoe and Olive View
During the worst of the firestorm, the firefighters were sitting in the trucks to protect themselves and at one point I was becoming worn out. I asked the engineer sitting in the fire engine parked outside my fence if they could take down a hose and help me. He told me they had been ordered to shelter in place in their trucks but admitted it looked like I could use some help. We walked through a line of about twenty trucks to where the captain was sitting safely in his fire engine. I asked if he could have the engine parked next to my property help me with the embers and he told me, “No.” He said they were waiting for an assignment.  He told me they were watching me and that I was doing a good job.  

I went back to my hoses and spot fires. I was now feeling very discouraged and feeling very, very alone.  I’d been doing this for several hours and was exhausted from the physical exertion. I’d been praying that God would provide some help and was angry that the firefighters were doing nothing. I could see houses around me on fire. Later that week, in talking to one of the fire captains where I work, I found out that they were just overwhelmed with the ferocity of it all. There were too many houses in danger for them to protect and too many homes that were already on fire. But at that point, watching the firefighters sit in their air-conditioned trucks while the fires were breaking out on my property, I never felt so alone and discouraged.  God was not going to answer my prayer that the firefighters would help save my house.
Sylmar Firestorm
Now the hurricane-force gusts were blowing the embers toward me like a blow torch. Red hot embers were stinging as they hit my face and embedded into my skin. I had to kneel down on the ground and direct the water in a spray pattern into the ember showers because it was just too hot and too intense. I was crying out to God and saying, “I just can’t do this alone. He (the fire captain) can see me just being overrun with embers. Change his mind God and make him send his men to help me.” And God was silent. I was still kneeling on the ground and the winds were gusting so fierce that I wouldn’t have been able to stand. I was crying, “Lord, I’m exhausted and don’t know how much longer I can hold out, and I don’t want to lose my house. Please send someone to help me.” And God was silent. And a moment later, I heard that still, small voice of God. He said, “You have Me.”  

I felt a surge of strength and leapt to my feet! These recent gusts had lit dozens of little fires. All along the base of my fence. At the base of trees. Along the street gutter where the winds had blown the dry leaves ahead of the flames. Spot fires were breaking out all over my front yard and my side yard. A flame leapt up into the air where a fire had broken out on my neighbor’s property. But now God has filled me with strength and hope and there is not a trace of tiredness. Now I’m running with my hose, putting out one fire after another and praising God the whole time at the top of my voice. In a prime moment of irony, I see that a tree branch under the fire truck parked next to my fence has caught fire. I use my hose to extinguish it. There was so much smoke, the firefighters sitting inside the cab were entirely unaware that their truck was about to catch on fire. At this point, the smoke is so dense I can’t even see my house. I can only see flames from the spot fires. I’m singing praise and thanks to God. The roar of the fire and the howl of the winds are so loud I have no inhibitions about shouting praises to God for saving my house! I no longer feel alone. I’m feeling energized and restored. I feel the presence of God. I’m pumped up and I know this battle against this firestorm has already been won!

I’m putting out the fire in some wood planks at the base of the horse corral and still singing and shouting out praises to God when I feel the presence of someone behind me. I turn around and there are seven to nine LAPD officers in full “SWAT tactical gear” standing in a semi-circle about fifteen feet behind me. They are just standing and watching me. They have full masks on so I can’t see their faces. Two officers walk out of the other part of my back yard and a woman officer tells the sergeant, “We just went though the house and nobody’s there. Just a dog.” I’m wearing a yellow firefighter brush jacket, mask, smoke goggles, red helmet and realize that by the way I’m dressed they think I’m a firefighter. I tell them, “This is my house.” No one speaks. There is an eerie silence while the police just stand there looking at me and waiting for direction from the sergeant. The sergeant looks at me for a long moment then he nods and says, “Looks like you’re handling this. Good luck.”  They all go through my gate and disappear back into the smoke.

A couple of nights ago I found out from my neighbors that at the height of the firestorm those officers were going house to house and forcibly evacuating any residents who had stayed behind to protect their homes. My next door neighbors had evacuated early because they have a family, but two doors down, the husband and wife were trying to protect their property as I was doing and the LAPD did not give them an option to stay. They were forced to leave in a patrol car. During the ember storms, the fire jumped Olive View and burned like a fuse through plants, groundcover and trees to ignite the houses. On my block, only my house and the two protected by my property were saved. On all the other properties, houses and barns were completely lost or seriously damaged. 

I found out later from the Glendale Fire Department, who was providing mutual aid that night, that the fire incident command was believing that my house and all the houses on the properties along Olive View Drive would be lost in the firestorm. The fire was raging with too much intensity and they thought that nothing could be done to save the houses. At that point, the fire had already jumped Olive View Drive and several houses and a large barn were fully engulfed in flames. In the minds of those making the command decisions, there was nothing that they could do but keep themselves out of danger. 

I assumed that at first the police thought I was a firefighter from the way I was dressed, but when they found out I was the resident I don’t know why they ignored the orders to take me out of the area. The next morning a County police officer on patrol for looters told me that I was the only one in the neighborhood they let stay. If they had taken me out, I would have definitely lost my house and perhaps the two other houses that were southwest of me. My house was the one directly in line from the fire and was getting the brunt of the ember storm. If mine had gone up, the winds would have likely blown the fire through the olive trees to the next two houses. 

I also found out later that these officers were the LAPD Metro Division that had been called in to secure the neighborhood and take command. I don’t know how long the sergeant and the officers were watching me shouting out praises and glory to God and putting out the fires! They were obviously convinced that I was fully capable of doing what I was doing safely. I’ll never know why the sergeant made the decision he did, but I can’t help to wonder if he could see that, while there was not a single firefighter helping me, that I was not “alone” on my property that night.

The next day my neighbors gave me credit for saving their homes and I told them that all the credit and all the glory goes to God! Nahum 1:7 says: “The Lord is good. A stronghold in time of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him.”

If you had said to me, on Friday night after just one hour of sleep, you’ll spend the next six hours running back and forth from one end of your one acre property to the other putting out fires. And, you’ll be putting out fires on your neighbor’s property as well. You will do this while wearing a mask that will restrict your breathing. All the time you’ll be doing this, you’ll be wearing goggles that will cut into your nose and be painful. Your face will be burned and clothing singed with hot embers and at one point you’ll need to turn the hose on yourself because your jeans would start catching on fire. After six hours of doing this, when the winds start to die down at 5:30 am, you will have a brief five minute break to get a drink of water and change your smoke mask. 

The Next Morning
 If you had told me I was going to do this, my response would be to laugh at you and tell you, “No way!!”  I’m too old and too out of shape. I have a desk job where the most strenuous thing I do is to answer email and sign my name to documents. And here is lesson number one from a firestorm:  The limitations we believe we have are not from God.   

We do have limitations. I can’t fly like a bird or swim like a fish. But then there are so many things that I  think I can’t do. Too many of those limitations that we believe we have, are not from God. I would have been absolutely convinced that there was no way I could have possibly done what I did. So let’s stop and think for a moment. What are the limitations you believe you have? Too old? Too physically challenged? Too young? Too busy at work? Too tired? Too financially strapped? Too uneducated about a particular subject? Too shy? What is it that you’ve told yourself that you can’t do?  

It’s easy for us to fall into the Enemy’s trap of believing that the limitations that we’ve imposed upon ourselves are real. Perhaps the seeds of these self-perceived limitations were planted many years ago when we were very young by something a parent or teacher said to us. Perhaps these limitations were born out of our own fears and insecurities. Perhaps you tried, failed and then simply made a rule for yourself that you’ll never try that again. But, those limitations are not God’s limitations, they are ours. I’m here to tell you today that The limitations you believe you have are not from God. 

At ground zero in what turned out to be the worst fire storm in LA County history... When the fire department had looked at our houses and written them off as an inevitable loss... God was telling me, you don’t need a full battalion. You don’t need an engine company. You don’t even need a single firefighter with a hose. “You have Me.” 

No matter what you’ve been through and what you’re struggling with today, God is saying to you, “You have Me and I will never leave you or forsake you.” And God has no limitations. A miracle is defined as “God’s intervention in the natural” and God is still in the miracle-working business.

Here’s the second lesson learned in a firestorm. Up until two weeks ago, the three hundred feet of property I have along Olive View had a dense line of Oleanders along it. When I bought the property, they were just beautiful. They were about twenty to twenty-five feet high and so dense that a human could not get through them. They provided privacy from the hospital across the street and were so thick they provided noise control as well.  About five years ago a disease that is specific to the Oleander species began to slowly kill them. For the past few years, I have had this huge three hundred foot section of dead trees on my property line. I didn’t want to take them out because, even though they were dead, these old dried out trees still provided a privacy screen and kept the noise down.  

One day last month, I found in my mail, a property clearance notice from the fire department. If I didn’t take down the dead Oleanders, the City would do it and bill me for it. The deadline was November 8th and just a few days before the deadline, I paid a company two thousand dollars to take down about sixty or seventy of these dead trees. I hated doing this. Now everybody that passes by sees right into my backyard and my pool. On the other side of my chain link fence is a dirt sidewalk that is more a horse trail than a sidewalk. I like to sit out on my patio after work and now, without the Oleanders, I’ll see dozens of riders kicking up huge dust clouds just thirty feet from where I’m relaxing with nothing between us now but an old chain link fence. I can’t tell you how much I hated this. Since I took out the trees, every night I sat out there and felt sorry for myself at having lost my privacy. I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking kind thoughts about the Fire Department Inspector either.  

Friday night, just two and a half hours before the fire started, I was out there sitting in my rocking chair and hating that my Oleanders were gone. Twenty-four hours later on Saturday night, with my backyard covered with soot and ash, I was sitting out in that same rocking chair with tears rolling down my face as I was thanking God for sending the fire inspector to force me to take out the Oleanders. There is absolutely no doubt that if the long dense line of dead trees had still been there, the ember showers would have ignited all 300 feet of them. The gusts would have enveloped my whole house in fire, spread to the Olive trees and most likely would have continued to burn my neighbor’s house as well. If the dead trees had been there, all of the firefighters sitting in their trucks on Olive View that night could not have stopped them from being fully engulfed in those winds. As I was sitting there and thanking God for His mercy and grace in creating the circumstances that forced me to remove those trees, God gave me the second lesson: “Trust in God. He is in control and sometimes you can’t figure out what He’s up to.”  

You see... God knew that fire was going to happen. He knew that I would have lost my house with those Oleanders. If I had half a brain I would have taken the trees out when they died. But God protects the dim-witted and feeble-minded and He sent that fire inspector to force me to do what I didn’t want to do. Sometimes what at first appears to be a curse is actually a blessing. Often it’s not until we get on the other side of a difficult time that we can see just how clearly God was orchestrating the whole situation all along. We need to trust in God even during the times when it is the most difficult for us to trust.

Remember I said that if you were to tell me that I would have the physical stamina to stay up all night running back and forth over my property putting out fires, I would have laughed at you and told you, “No way!”

If you had told me two weeks ago that I needed to be thanking God that my trees were gone, I would have probably told you something rude and said, “No way am I going to thank God for that! You’ve got to be kidding me!!” But God knew what He was doing while I was clueless. God knows my future. I don’t. “Trust in God. He is in control and sometimes you can’t figure out what He’s up to.”  

There may be some unsettling things in your life right now that are of real concern to you. Things that you can’t get off your mind. Things that keep you up at night. And, so many times those things look unsettled to us because we don’t know our future. But God is in control. God already knows how your life will turn out. He knows what all of your tomorrows look like. Remember lesson two from a firestorm:  “Trust in God. He is in control and sometimes you can’t figure out what He’s up to.”

I started out by saying that I was a doubly-blessed man. Thursday morning, as I was driving to work, God gave me lesson number three and once again the tears started to roll as my thanks to Him poured out of my heart. Everything I own is from God. The Lord provided me with a job and the finances to purchase certain things like my house, all that is in it and all that I own. As I was driving and thanking Him for all that I have, God reminded me that everything I possess, He had given to me twice. He gave it to me the first time, item by item as I acquired it and put it on a shelf, or in a drawer or in my closet.  

God then gave all that I have, again to me on the night of the fire. I could so easily have lost all that He’s given to me if there had just been one stray, unnoticed ember out of the many thousands that hit my property that night. But God was there and I didn’t miss a single spot fire. God was gracious to me that night and everything that He had ever given me, He gave to me again. Lesson number three is: “Praise God with a thankful heart for everything, always.” 

Here are the three lessons learned in a firestorm once again:

Number One: 
“The limitations we believe we have are not from God."

Number Two: 
“Trust in God. He is in control and sometimes we don’t know what He’s up to.”

Number Three: 
“Praise God with a thankful heart for everything, always.”

It has not escaped my thoughts that while God was blessing me that night with His protective presence, hundreds of people were losing their homes, possessions and pets to this fire. So many escaped with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. My heart and prayers go out to those who lost so much that horrible night. May God bring them through this overwhelming tragedy. God is a God of restoration and what the Enemy has stolen through a firestorm, God will restore. Please join me in prayer, particularly during this holiday season... that God will ease their grief and give them strength, comfort and provision.

Across The Street

Two Houses East

Three Houses West

I cannot tell you why God rested His hand of protection on me that night. I can tell you that in the past week I have told dozens of people at my work about these three lessons I learned in a firestorm. Those who mistakenly see me as a hero have been told, “Nope. I’m just an old guy with a garden hose.” God is the hero of this story. Those who would never listen to a sermon are hanging onto every word of this testimony of God’s presence that night. Those who are skeptical non-believers are asking questions about God’s providence. Those who don’t believe in God’s miracles today are seeing Him through opened eyes and doubting their disbelief. I am a blessed and thankful man today. I am thankful that God took one of the worst nights in my life and turned it into a powerful testimony of His goodness, grace and mercy.

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It’s six years later and whenever the hot, dry Santa Ana’s blow, I go out in my back yard to scan the hills for any signs of fire and sniff the air for the odor of smoke. But as my thoughts drift back to that night, my anxieties fade away. Sometimes in what may appear to be the worst possible of circumstances, that “still, small voice of God” reverberates so loudly and clearly in your spirit that you hear the echo of His words for the rest of your life. In the middle of a firestorm, God said, “You have Me.” I still do.