Heartbreak Ridge

I’m familiar with the thousand-yard stare. As a journalist, I’ve seen it many times over the years. Back in the day, as a daily newspaper reporter, I encountered it while interviewing people at the scene of car accidents and other traumatic incidents I was sent to cover.

I immediately recognized it in the faces of those who ran for their lives—quite literally in some cases—to escape the Camp Fire. I have little doubt they will be processing what happened for years to come, probably forever. But never until this week had I seen that stare while standing in front of a mirror.

It’s hard to fathom something of this magnitude. A full week after the start of the firestorm, the extent of the disaster has yet to be revealed. We don’t know how many of our friends, family members and neighbors have been lost. We don’t have a full picture of an evacuation plan that failed to account for the frailest among us. We also don’t know how to best serve the tens of thousands of people whose hometown looks like a war zone.

I spent hours on Friday and the weekend surveying the damage on the Ridge. And as soon as this paper goes to press, I’m headed back to check on the homes of several members of my CN&R family.

During my first trip, with Managing Editor Meredith J. Cooper, I struggled to navigate a landscape in which so many familiar landmarks had been reduced to burning, smoldering piles of debris. When we got home, neither of us could shake the weight of bearing witness to the ruin.

I thought I’d fare a little better the next day when I returned with Arts Editor Jason Cassidy. Once again, though, the scale of the destruction knocked me over. I was also overwhelmed by requests from the public to check on their houses, their lives, their beloved pets. One such request came from a friend who lives in New York. His father’s whole neighborhood was a graveyard of chimneys and toxic waste.

I left that dead-end street utterly heartbroken.

Journalists are trained to be flies on the wall, passive observers, but I’ve broken that rule on occasion. I’m a human being first. That day, shortly after I’d asked Jason to keep his eyes peeled for distressed pets, I turned from reporter to rescuer.

While driving on Sawmill Road, Jason spotted a black cat. I jumped out to coax it, but the wild-eyed creature ran off into the ashes of its former home. Only after removing my mask and whispering my best “here kitty, kitty” did it peek out from a drain pipe and let me give it a little scratch. That was my opening. I grabbed it by the scruff of the neck. A firefighter driving by saw the action, giving us a shout and thumbs up.

Back in the car, the feline dug its claws into my thighs. They retracted about halfway down the Skyway as I cradled it like a newborn, stroking its head. Then came the purring and gentle tap on the cheek from an oversize paw of this sweet polydactyl.

All things considered, the cat looked great. A few burns under the nape of its neck appeared easily treatable. I kissed its forehead and dropped it off at Valley Oak Veterinary Center—easing my heart, if only momentarily.

About Melissa Daugherty 75 Articles
Melissa Daugherty is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer who started her career as a higher education reporter at a daily newspaper. Daugherty spent 17 years at the CN&R, eight of them as editor-in-chief. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is her super power.