Hi Cami! I'm on round #2 of the 29 Gifts Challenge. I saw your request for personal essays, so here is my story. I can't wait to read your second book! Thank you!
Beauty From Ashes Community Healing After the Redding Carr Fire #29giftsforRedding on Facebook August 24, 2018
“Don’t come to work today” Laurie called and said over the phone at 7:30 in the morning on Thursday July 26, 2018. “Why?” I questioned. “Because of the fire,” she replied. “The fire that is on the other side of Whiskeytown Lake?” I didn’t think it could be possible because it was 15 miles away, but I asked anyways. “Yes.” She said. “They evacuated our office this morning. It’s closed. I grabbed your picture of Eliza (my daughter), off your desk before I left.” Laurie and I work together as engineers at the Keswick Dam, which is about 11 miles East of where the Carr fire started, due to sparks from a trailers flat tire igniting nearby dry brush on Highway 299. My home was located another 3 miles east of Keswick Dam. I called my boss, just to confirm. “Yes, please don’t come into work today. Just take care of your family,” he said. I checked the news and confirmed the fire that had tripled in size overnight and was racing in my direction. I started packing. Although the official evacuation hadn’t been given in my neighborhood yet, I didn’t want risk losing everything by waiting. I didn’t want to running out into the dark night without any electricity or time to think or pack. I didn’t need an official evacuation to know that it was serious. I started by videoing everything in the house in case I might need it for insurance purposes. I texted 12 neighbors and asked them to consider doing the same. My daughter, Eliza, 6 years old, asked for ice cream for breakfast. I said sure as I frantically threw loads of photo albums into my car. I texted my husband, who was working in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, sailing on the Oregon State University ship. I told him the fire was coming close and I wanted to know what he needed me to grab for him. I told my daughter to pick out her favorite clothes and toys and I rummaged through my sons room, who was miles away, safely with family. I caught my cat early, when she came in to eat and before she started her day outdoors. It’s her usual pattern to come to the house early and eat, then get back outside and catch lizards and mice. She didn’t like that I stuffed her in a carrier and she howled in disapproval while I continued packing. Eliza asked for more ice cream. “Sure!” Again. I put the kids’ two beta fish into two separate plastic food containers with lids and put them in the cup holder. I caught three chickens and stuffed them into the cage with two bunnies. Then I caught six more chickens and put them into another cage. I think that’s everything? My daughter and my little dog climbed into the car. I took a picture of our house, waved goodbye to the neighbors packing their own car and then we left. We pulled into the gas station, filled up, and were on our way out of there around 3 pm. People said the fire wouldn’t jump the Sacramento River. People said that the fire wouldn’t get into the city limits. Was I over reacting? I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I just got out of there. With a car full of stinky chickens and a distressed howling cat, I drove an hour and a half drive to Chico, where my sister and her chickens live. I unloaded everything and integrated my chickens with her chickens. Her boyfriend counted. “Do you have 9 or 10 chickens?” he asked. “There should be 10 chickens there.” I said. “Well, you only have 9 here.” He said. Oh no. I looked at them all closely and realized which one was missing. I texted my neighbor to see if she was still there of if she had evacuated yet. She was still there and went and rescued my shy chicken and kept her with her chickens. When everything was settled, and all animals were out of the car, I took my sister and her boyfriend to dinner to thank them for letting us evacuate to their home. I could finally rest knowing my family, animals, and favorite possessions were out of harm’s way. If we lost our home, it would be okay. Around 9 or 10 that night is when the west half of the city evacuated. The stories of packing in the dark with the power turned off, gridlock on the road, and the fire right at their heals of evacuating people were being posted all over social media and the internet. It was officially a disaster. I was so thankful we were far away from it, but I still worried for my house, my neighbors, my coworkers, and my community. Over 1000 homes burned that night after the fire jumped the river and containment lines and entered the city limits. It was unbelievable, but it was true. I watched the news and stayed away as long as I could, but early the next week, I got the call that it was time to come back to work. As I drove back into Redding for the first time, I saw overpass after overpass covered in “Thank You First Responders” signs. Every corner stop sign of every intersection had posters full of gratitude, appreciation, and thanks all over them. The smoke was still so thick. It just felt too early to be getting back to normal with the Carr Fire still raging, although now contained away from the city limits. The fire had been put out about a quarter of a mile from our home and I was so thankful that our wonderful neighborhood was okay. Over the next few days, I saw that most of my commute to work was now hills of burned homes and charred trunks of manzanita trees. The fire had burned completely around our office building next to Keswick Dam, but the building was still standing. All the electrical power poles had burned to the ground and required replacement and the building had smoke damage, so we were issued laptops and worked from home until the remediation work was complete. It was time to get back to normal, but my emotions were out of control. Five of my coworkers, and two of my friends lost their homes. Another friend’s home had survived, but two houses away from her, the neighborhood was destroyed- nothing left but fire places and their chimneys, twisted metal, burned cars, and ashes. I felt bad for the people who had lost their homes and also for the homes that were saved as islands in a sea of ashy destruction all around them. The bridges on the river trail that I walked daily with friends had burned, rendering the trails inaccessible. The cashier at the grocery store had lost her home and couldn’t find her cat. Everywhere I went, people told their stories of evacuation and loss. Half the city evacuated, and everyone was affected by the fire. So many days of experiences of shock, tension, stress, fear, and sadness. How do you heal when your community is devastated? You give. It was time to give. I had completed the 29 gifts challenge one time two years ago, and as my heart was filled with tension and chaos upon returning to Redding after the Carr fire, I knew that the answer was to complete this challenge again, right now. I wanted the focus of my gifts to be specifically in ways for the Redding Community to heal from the Carr fire. So I made a list of ideas and I kept my heart and my eyes peeled for opportunities to give. Instead of my thoughts being trapped in how horrible this is, they are now focused on what can I do? How can I give? Who can I help? Who can I thank? Who can I make happy today? They wander over to how horrible this is a lot less with the distraction of giving. I started posting my gifts and people offered to help. Others around me all started giving too. Because that is what you do as a community that is coming together after devastation. During this journey of healing after the Carr fire, I donated cash to a family of six that had lost their home. I gave the $20 delivery fee back to a young lady after we delivered a bed that she bought from us because her grandfather had lost his home, and was moving in with her. I donated about $25 in school supplies to a man who was collecting supplies, specifically for kids who had lost their homes. I brought tiny vases with Zinnia flowers from my garden to my coworkers on our first day back into our office. One day I rounded up to the nearest dollar at the store to donate to the Carr fire. I also gave to the animals that were affected by the fire. I bought a bag of Cob from the feed store and gave it to my friend who lived at the forest edge and had thirsty, hungry, and tired deer wandering into her backyard where the fence had burned down. Now she feeds them a little each day and fills a dish for them to drink out of. I bought meal worms and seeds and left them on a rock on a trail for the birds and squirrels, who along with the deer, are also left homeless and vulnerable. I collected wood ash from burned manzanitas and gave them to my chickens by integrating the ash into their dust bath for the health benefits they provide. Another group of friends helped me gather towels and blankets to donate to the animal shelter. I bought a bag of cat treats at PetsMart for the donation pile going to the animal shelter. I have integrated essential oils into my healthy lifestyle and have loved giving them to people during this challenge. I gave a diffuser and essential oils to my friend who lost her home, while she was on vacation- so she wasn’t able to gather any of her favorite belongings. My essential oil community rallied up when I asked for help and they donated and shipped oils from the East Coast to help my friend replace her essential oil collection that she lost along with her home during the fire. I made 15 bottles of cooling peppermint spray and gave them to fire fighters and utility crews rebuilding our city, in August, in the hottest place north of the Mohave Desert. I gave roller bottles of essential oils- a bouquet in a bottle, to a lady road construction flagger and to a coworker that lost her home. Painting has also distracted me from the burned devastation. I painted at a benefit painting class where all the money raised was donated to the animal shelter. And all the paintings were donated to people who are starting over with new homes and blank walls. Then I bought a glass of wine for the artist who gave her time to create the event and fundraiser. I painted my “Thank you” sign and a sign with colorful fire and flowers that said “Beauty from Ashes.” I hung these posters in the grayest areas of my commute to work. I was so thankful and felt peace the first time, I saw someone write “Beauty from Ashes” on their car after the fire. It reminded me that as the community rebuilds so much will be new and it will be beautiful again someday soon. Today, it’s been almost a month since the fire reached the city limits, but already, even without rain, I see new green plants emerging from the charred scenery. It will be beautiful and green here again someday as the earth gives us new green plants. But in the meantime, I will keep giving when the opportunity presents itself to help myself and my community heal from the emotional trauma of the fire’s devastation.
Thank you for sharing! What an amazing story. I was evacuated from a wildfire last year and it was the most stressful time of my life. Our home was saved by the hotshot crews and I am forever grateful!