When the Holiday Fire roared through their city, devouring lands and homes, Ishu Rao and his family didn’t have time to take stock of all their belongings.
They, like hundreds of their neighbors, hastily fled. One of the prized items the couple left behind was a wedding ring.
This weekend, the Raos returned to their neighborhood in Goleta, California. Their two-story house was gone, burned to the ground. They set about looking for the ring in the ashes of what remained.
When they finally found it, Ishu Rao dropped to one knee — and proposed to his wife all over again.
“It just was like something that seemed like a silly thing to do that might put a smile on her face,” he told CNN.
The gesture, he said, was spontaneous. But when so much of the future is uncertain, it conveyed a lot.
Split-second decisions define the relationship
Ishu Rao, a doctor who was previously the single father of two daughters, met his wife, Laura, on a blind date.
When he went engagement ring shopping, he stopped in at Tiffany’s only to reject all of the traditional engagement rings in favor a piece with a yellow, oval-shaped diamond.
As they debated where, when, and how to get married, the couple found themselves heading to the courthouse one morning in November.
The wedding was so unplanned that Rao’s older daughter wasn’t able to get out of a test she had that day at school.
Leaving their home behind came out of nowhere, too.
One moment, they were in bed with the girls Friday watching a movie. The next, they’d grabbed their pets and the kids and were speeding from the house. What Rao’s wife didn’t have time to do was grab the ring from the dish where she’d put it before bed.
Also left behind were old photos, signed memorabilia from Rao’s favorite singer, and a sentimental guitar.
“We always thought we’d grab those things and we didn’t,” Rao said. “When there’s no time to think, you kind of instinctively react.”
Santa Barbara has been there for them
For Ishu and Laura Rao, reacting to the Holiday Fire meant dashing from their home. For their community, it’s meant providing an outpouring of support.
Her phone has been “blowing up” with messages offering the family spare furniture, rentals, and a moving service. An ordained minister reached out with an offer to help the couple renew their vows.
“Someone even set up a GoFundMe,” said Rao, who admitted they hadn’t even thought of that.
He noted that he’s felt more gratitude than loss since Friday, saying, “You can’t imagine how loved you can feel. If you ever have any doubt how you’re living your life, if people show up for you like this, you know you might be doing something okay.”
Some of those people showing up are none other than the firefighters, who Rao called “wonderful people.”
“They are all about helping,” he said. “They do everything they can to make your life better.”
Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Mike Eliason said something similar. He escorted the Raos back to the site of their home Sunday to look for the ring.
“Working in fire service is where people are having their worst day and we are called to make their worst day better,” said Eliason, who’s been with the department since 1985 and is getting married in 19 days himself.
“This was something special out of these ashes of destruction. It was very much an honor to be a part of that and to be let into their lives.”