(A Disaster Victim Shares Her Harrowing Tale of Survival and Recovery)
*(Photo Above: Patty stands in front of her new home built by IRT volunteers.)
On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire ravaged my hometown of Old Magalia and surrounding communities, destroying everything in its path. The devastation included my home: five generations of memories, thousands of pictures, my livelihood as an artist, and my grandson’s safe place. Additionally, it devastated my lifelong goal of owning my own home, without debt, and the life I had dreamed of, near family and friends.
I'm 60 years old and single. Before the fire, I lived a quiet life on a minimal, fixed income. I enjoyed painting, gardening, quilting, and jewelry design. My grandson, Isaac, the most important focus in my life is a beautiful, sweet, Autistic, nonverbal, musically inclined, intelligent child. He was three years old at the time of the fire. He lived with me four days a week. A therapist came to my home to work with him on these days and Isaac was making incredible progress! He had begun making eye contact and signing. He knew his colors, the alphabet, numbers, and surpassed expectations by using words verbally. He was out of diapers and could brush his teeth. He was proud of himself, and a happy child. He had his own bedroom, toys, and a learning tablet specifically designed for autistic children.
Autistic children do not adjust well to change. When I lost my home, Isaac lost his source of comfort. He has regressed in everything we had accomplished with the therapist. He is back in diapers, non-verbal, does not use sign language, or have an interest in music.
After four years of trying to rebuild my home and spending all of my savings on my property, I had lost hope. Then a miracle came into town one Sunday. The IRT volunteers came rolling in to begin construction on my home. I got very little sleep that night or the following five nights. I was afraid to wake and realize their arrival was only a dream. But, it was real! There are no words that can express how the IRT volunteers changed my life. I was so defeated, and now I feel hopeful for the future, for the first time in a very long time.
THE DAY OF THE FIRE
The morning of November 8, had an eerie feeling. It was quiet and still. There was an orange-yellowish soft glow on the horizon. I went outside to snap a picture of the smoke off in the distance. The image I captured was one of terror and disbelief. There was a fire heading directly towards me. I was paralyzed with fear. My neighbors were running for their vehicles and screaming. I grabbed a cellphone charger and a pillow and blanket. The clothes I was wearing at the time were the clothes I would wear for the next two weeks.
As hard as I tried to stay focused, and maintain an optimistic attitude, I knew in the deepest part of my being that this was a bad situation, a true emergency, and life or-death decisions were necessary immediately. In my escape, I saw cars, trucks, and RVs backed up in the small streets and main roads. People were running while pushing a wheelchair, or gurney; young parents running with a stroller, while balancing a toddler on a hip. I saw a pregnant woman on horseback, holding a very small child seated in front of her. I continued in stop-and-go traffic downhill, entering the town of Paradise. I saw unfamiliar and some familiar faces. They were frantic and crying. There were vehicles on fire, people inside screaming for help, but, it was too hot to approach close enough to open the doors to free them. Dogs in the beds of trucks, on fire from the burning embers, the size of salad plates, falling from the sky.
ESCAPE AND SAFETY
After many hours on the road, I found a church accepting evacuees. They opened their doors to provide shelter. The scene resembled a refugee camp, as make shift tents, sleeping bags, and rolled-up blankets became a safe place. I was hungry, cold, scared, lost, and lonely. As hard as I tried, I couldn't escape the images of people, and pets, burning in their cars. I witnessed events that no one should see. Things that will haunt me until I die.
THE LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
For a year I did everything I could in an attempt to move forward. First, I lived in a shelter, then my car, then a FEMA trailer. Finally, I found a fifth-wheel RV to purchase, and “dry camped” without electricity or running water.
Prior to the fire, and after years of insuring my home, my homeowner’s insurance company canceled my policy. I was told, "it was a high fire risk". I have worked diligently on my own trying to coordinate everything necessary to move back to my property. I wanted to go home. Dead and compromised trees had to be cut down and removed at my expense. I dug until I uncovered my septic tank, and was able to get a temporary permit for hook up to the RV. I paid to have a water test and was able to run a water line from the public road to my flag lot, and install a spigot. I acquired a permit for a power pole.
I did everything I needed to do to go home. This was all I wanted in the world. There were countless obstacles to overcome as a single person living on a fixed income.
Apart from the fire destroying the whole community, the team of IRT heroes is the most surreal experience I've ever known. I awoke from a dream, and it was true, I'm really going to have a home again! I write this through tears of joy and I may seem a little too mushy, but I don't know how to express how much this means to me, and my future with Isaac. In five days it was possible for me to walk through rooms, look out windows, and feel the comfort of a roof over my head again. Thank you, IRT for everything you did for me, and all of the other people that are looking for their dreams to come true.