Losing your home and possessions in a fire is enough to leave anyone devastated. However, when this man escaped Santa Barbara’s Holiday Fire with his family with just minutes to spare, his perspective was far from pessimistic.
On the evening of Friday, July 6, Dr. Ishu Rao was watching TV in bed with his wife and youngest daughter, trying to stay cool in the lower level of their home, when he smelled smoke all of a sudden. When he got up and looked out the window, he saw a huge fire about half a mile away.
“We’ve seen fires in Santa Barbara so much that we kinda know that this one looked bad,” Dr. Rao, a clinical cardiac electrophysiologist at a hospital in Ventura, California, told The Epoch Times in a phone interview.
Minutes later, the couple fled in separate cars with Ishu’s 12- and 14-year-old daughters, three dogs, a cat, and the clothes on their backs.
But his wife, Laura Rao, had forgotten one important thing.
Laura, 39, was just about to leave to drive to her mother’s two-bedroom condo when she realized she had left her Tiffany engagement ring and wedding band in the house.
She usually takes off her rings at night before bed and had forgotten to grab them in the rush to escape the inferno.
By then, though, it was too dangerous for Laura, who was 8 weeks pregnant, to go back and get them.
That night, from the safety of Laura’s mother’s condo, the Raos watched the house they had loved living in for three years burn to the ground on an NBC Facebook Live post.
The next day, a neighbor confirmed it. And on Sunday, July 8, Mike Eliason, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesperson, escorted Ishu and Laura, back to where their Goleta home had been, to look for the rings.
After mapping out the layout of the house, Dr. Rao found the charred Tiffany rings right where his wife had left it, in a ceramic bowl near the bathroom sink.
The 48-year-old then dropped to one knee and asked his wife of 8 months to marry him, again.
#HolidayFire– Having lost their Fairview Ave home of 3 years Friday night, Ishu and Laura Rao returned w Santa Barbara Co Fire to let Laura search for her wedding ring. She found the damaged Tiffany ring & Ishu promptly dropped to a knee and asked her to marry him again. pic.twitter.com/GVUgO8dgTJ
— SBCFireInfo (@EliasonMike) July 8, 2018
They’re not actually having another wedding. Dr. Rao said he did it to put it a smile on his wife’s face.
But amid the devastation, the spontaneous romantic gesture brought smiles to a lot more people than Dr. Rao had intended.
The photo of the proposal, shared on Twitter by the fire department, quickly went viral, much to the surprise and amusement of the Raos.
Well, except for his oldest daughter, who only had this to say about the media attention:
“You got famous with your cheesiness,” she wrote in a message to her dad. “Let’s hope for the Ellen Show.”
Optimism and Gratitude
His 14-year-old daughter has been coping with the tragedy with poise and optimism, and according to Dr. Rao, his family’s high-spiritedness is one reason they’ve been able to handle the situation well overall.
“The proposal definitely took the tension off of the devastation for a little bit,” he said. “It gave us something to distract ourselves with.”
Dr. Rao said that the playful gesture like the proposal is nothing out of the ordinary in his “silly and goofy” family.
“Honestly, though, this is the kind of thing we do in our family,” he said.
It’s also one of the reasons he fell in love with his wife in the first place; her personality and sense of humor were a perfect match with Ishu’s light-hearted family. Ishu met Laura on a blind date in 2016, when his realtor suggested the two go on a date.
His realtor, Alexis, is a friend of Laura, who is also a realtor in Santa Barbara.
Despite losing everything he owns in one night—including one of his most treasured possessions, a record autographed by his favorite musician, Chris Cornell—Dr. Rao doesn’t dwell on the losses.
Instead, he’s been filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the love and support from family, friends, and the community.
“When you have so many people holding you up you can’t really think about that you’ve fallen down at all,” he said.
Dr. Rao’s parents sent them money right away; Laura’s mother took in the whole family, including pets, to her two-bedroom condo; and friends of the couple set up a GoFundMe campaign to help them rebuild their life.
Even his youngest daughter, who was initially scared and crying during the evacuation, processed her emotions quickly and got into the “spirit of gratitude” after a friend of the family gave her a bed for her new room.
“It’s so amazing to feel this kind of affection that people have for us,” Dr. Rao said. “It’s been indescribable really.”
In fact, he said the losses don’t even matter in the grand scheme of things.
“You don’t necessarily need the entrapment and the attachment [of material possessions] … those are not necessary. If you’ve got your family, you’ve got everything you’ve ever needed. There’s no doubt in my mind what is important and what isn’t.”
Now, the Raos are looking forward to buying their own home after the baby is born in the coming months. And his daughters are still hoping they’ll get on Ellen.