They wrote in notebooks and raised their hands to ask impossible questions. Will my neighbors ever return? Will the businesses in our community fail?
They were from Paradise, Magalia, Concow and Butte Creek Canyon, foothill communities burned by the Camp Fire. For three hours, they grilled a group of Santa Rosa residents who drove to Butte County this week to share hard-earned lessons of loss and resilience.
The answers they got from these fellow wildfire survivors, who lost their homes 14 months ago in the Tubbs Fire, whittled down to two truths: Question everything and band together like never before.
“I’d like to say we know what you went through, but what you went through was so much more,” said Anne Barbour, whose Coffey Park home was among the earliest to be rebuilt in Santa Rosa. “Step up, and take your town back because what we’ve created is one hell of a community.”
Eight Sonoma County residents, mostly members of the recovery group Coffey Strong, spent Tuesday in Chico meeting with Butte County residents facing the kind of grief and uncertainty they began grappling with more than one year ago. They spent hours at an Episcopal church in north Chico with about 75 Butte County residents and at a packed afternoon meeting with contractors, city officials, builders and residents.
The October 2017 Tubbs Fire burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes, and killed 22 people, briefly giving it the terrible distinction of being the most destructive wildfire in California history.
It would be surpassed by the Camp Fire. At least 86 people have died. Paradise, a town of about 27,000 people, is at least 90 percent gone. All five City Council members lost their homes, as did the county supervisor for the area.
“We need to start organizing and start coming together as a community — we can make that agreement tonight,” said Miles Berdaehe Lynk, a Paradise resident who lost his home of 10 years.
They forged a new friendship with these Sonoma County visitors who had to learn the same alphabet soup of acronyms for the dizzying amount of documents and government bureaucracy to manage their losses and recovery.
Butte County residents talked about the wild pendulum swing of emotions. Will they rebuild or move? Will they ever feel safe living in their forested communities again?
They asked how to come up with lists of everything in their homes, an emotional and daunting inventory required by insurance companies. They said they were afraid they’ll never again be able to insure their homes in these forested communities. They were worried the debris cleanup crews would scrape their acreages clean of familiar trees and topography, or damage crucial septic systems. They said they felt out of control.
“My main concern is what they’re going to do to my lot,” said Betty Paugh of Butte Creek Canyon, who laughed wearily about the fact she had the carpets cleaned the morning of the Camp fire. Her home would burn to the ground that night when the fire reached her canyon.
“You will find yourselves mad at inanimate objects,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who founded the Coffey Strong group in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood that lost 1,321 single-family homes. “I’m talking about a door that won’t close properly, and now I’m swearing at it for five minutes because I’m mad at the world.”
Paradise is now a charred landscape of blackened trees, burned-out cars and chimneys. On a hill where the stench of smoke lingered and a once blue pool was black and stagnant, the view looked across a valley and offered a glimpse of what Paradise once was: a green and forested community with tidy fences and still standing homes.
Tuesday’s meetings were not just for the benefit of Butte County people. For many fire survivors in Sonoma County, each new wildfire this year that has cloaked the region in smoke has sharpened again that initial pain that weathers into softer shape yet never truly goes away.
Santa Rosa middle school teacher Tricia Woods took no days off work last year after the Tubbs fire destroyed her Coffey Park home because she felt her students needed her. One year later, Woods’ new home is less than two months away from being move-in ready.
“I took two personal days to come here,” Woods said, as she helped stack chairs after the emotional three-hour meeting. “It’s healing.”
Sonoma County residents know that people in Butte County didn’t lose just things these to the wildfire that took their homes. They lost their child’s comfort blankie. They lost a grandfather’s dog tags.
They understand what is gone for Kelley Albright, 56, of Paradise, a paratransit bus driver whose home for much of three decades on Lucky John Road was destroyed in the Camp Fire. The walls held memories of Albright’s children and barbecues. It’s where her father took his last breath years ago and where in August they shared an end-of-life celebration just before her beloved boyfriend died there too.
Like many, Albright was in turns tearful and laughing throughout Tuesday’s meeting, which she drove about 40 minutes from the hotel where she’s staying to attend. She asked the Sonoma County visitors about the pros and cons of living in a trailer on her burned-out property, and she joked about how smoke from her fire worsened Santa Rosa resident’s Bill Northcroft’s cough.
“I’m sorry!” she called out in a moment of shared gallows humor.
The tears welled up again after the meeting as she recalled how Okrepkie described accidentally driving to his home, taking streets on autopilot, only to be hit again with the brutal visual reminder that all he once had is gone.
“He said, ‘You want to go home.’ Yes I do,” Albright said.
She tried to wipe her tears away but they kept coming. Barbour walked over and gave her a hug.
“Thank you,” Albright said.
Alan Rellaford, 58, has seen drone video that shows his Paradise home still stands but he does not know when he will be able to return. It’s unlikely to be anytime soon. His wife is undergoing treatment for cancer and needs a safe, clean home environment now more than ever.
“The people who have been through it — they are coming through in magnificent ways,” Rellaford said. “They know we need more than paper towels and sweatshirts.”