The evacuation notice for the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, where Don Meaney lived, was issued on Saturday, June 23. Meaney was downtown at a Democratic Party function when a friend tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Don, are you watching the news?”
“Then I saw the fire and thought, ‘that’s not good,” said Meaney. “I went home and pulled out my map. The fire started in Cedar Heights so, I thought, ‘Here’s where I live and there’s Cedar Heights, thirteen miles away.’ I assumed they were just being overly cautious.”
Then the winds switched.
Meaney, a local artist, lost his home, his art, and the bulk of his belongings in the Waldo Canyon Fire. His house was among the 300 that burned to the ground after the winds changed direction, and he is now trying to find a way to recover after a harrowing physical and emotional ride.
“Envision London, Berlin, or Tokyo after war,” Meaney said, describing his charred neighborhood. “The cities deserted. The people gone.”
Meaney is an artist, but he finds no inspiration in the scorched landscape.
“I see tragedy,” he said.
By Sunday June 24, after the initial evacuation was ordered, the firestorm grew more intense.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll start taking some photographs. So, I’m going to spend a couple nights at a nice hotel? I might as well grab those bottles of wine,’” Meaney said. “I threw the wine in the trunk along with some important documents and headed downtown.”
He also grabbed two personal art pieces: one that had won an award and a portrait that was still a work in progress. He thought he would be back in a couple of days.
Meaney lost his home on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. When asked about the loss of most of his personal artwork, he changes the subject.
“Its awfully quiet isn’t it?” he muses.
Meaney talks about the process of collapsing the foundation, rebuilding, plans for an enclosed deck, and plans for a larger house set back further from the street.
He will rebuild. Where one saw a blank foundation, Meaney saw his future house. Only one artifact remains.
“Actually the only thing that survived is a pot,” he said.
It was sitting on the corner of the deck and rolled off during the blaze. Upon returning to the site, he “took a pen and wrote on the pot ‘Please work around this. I’ll put it back where it belongs when I return.’ It was a way of letting the neighbors know that ‘Hey, Don’s still alive.’”
He says the pot will have a place in the new house.
“The real back story here is how people react to this,” Meaney hypothesizes. “This is a triggering event. Providence. What happened, happened. However, it can trigger the entire spectrum of emotions.”
I came to know of Meaney after a conversation with one of the employees at the Meininger art store downtown. Looking for a good story, I asked one of the employees if they knew anyone effected by the fire.
The employee produced a Polaroid, and there was Don Meaney: squatting in front of his rubble-filled foundation, smiling.
“He’s one of our best customers,” Lorelei said.
That night, I shot Meaney an email hoping to snag an interview. Instead, he replied with a homework assignment. He couldn’t do an interview that week, but he said, “It will give you time to go to the library to check out On the Nature of Things (an epic poem) by Lucretius. The library has two . . . no excuses.”
He now checked the homework. “What did you think of On the Nature of Things, Book V, paragraph two?” He eagerly took my silence as an opportunity. “It talks about the four powers of nature: earth, water, wind, and fire. They all work in unison or against each other.”
Don continued, “I use gallows humor as my way to ‘work in unison.”
Meaney is no stranger to hardship. He spent his early years in the “Spartan circumstances” of the armed services barracks. “In the barracks, you own nothing. I’ve done it once and I can do it again.”
He liked the idea of traveling, and spent some time in Japan and Germany “following the paycheck,” working for the Federal Government. “My favorite job was actually working in a lab making prosthodontict devices– dentures, crowns, implants. I always scare dentists because I know too much.”
Heading back to the car, Meaney paints a picture of the neighborhood prior to the devastation. “Imagine sitting on your deck, right here, facing the hills, and a herd of deer come walking along your street.”
He also pictures the firestorm.
“Think of these basement foundations as 9th century blast furnaces, filled with debris, with the wind blowing over the top of them,” he said.
The winds reportedly reached 65 mph.
“There’s nothing really to save; its all gone,” Meaney said.
What would drive someone to build in such a tinderbox? Meaney responded, “Ask a resident of Pompeii if they were aware of any risk when they moved into their village.” Fair enough.
Meaney’s artistic side continues to come through. He discussed the melted objects—glass, plastic, and metal bowed from heating and cooling. None were more interesting than the rippled curtains of green, melted electric terminal boxes.
“Doesn’t that look like a piece of modern art? Do you see the face in it? Here’s the eye. There’s the nose and a little bit of the mouth.”
Despite the blaze, the road signs remained magnificently untouched.
“It’s not like a graveyard,” Meaney declares, “I’m going back because I want to reclaim what I had.”
One time, he visited a local Safeway to meet an insurance agent around the time of the fire. Two troop carriers, filled with 20-somethings, pulled up and unloaded their brave cargo of firemen and firewomen.
“They started doing push-ups. I walked over and thanked the supervisor for their service.” As the troops pulled away, with windows rolled down, Meaney was cheered with a multitude of waving hands.
There was the lone pot that had survived. There was Meaney’s expertise in prosthodontict devices, working with gold and porcelain. “I’ve been involved in crafts my entire life. Who knows where it will take me.”
So what is in store for the future of Don’s artwork?
“Maybe I’ll just be a Winston Churchill who sits outside with a blanket and does watercolors in his retirement,” he chuckles at the thought.
“What do I see for the future of my artwork?” Meaney repeated. “I see pleasure.”