Carr Fire Etiquette: Put Yourself in Survivors’ Ashy Shoes

A trio of cypress trees stand sentry in front of the remains of the Craig home after it was destroyed by the Carr Fire. Photo courtesy of Doug Craig

I didn't lose my home, but I know many people who did. And I've noticed a few delicate things that have come up, things that perhaps those who've lost their homes don't quite know how to say.

Who can blame them? They're in shock. They're in this weird limbo feeling, similar to when you're staying at a hotel, and no matter how OK it might be, at some point you just want to go home.

Where do you go when you want to go home, but the home as you knew it no longer exists?

In the middle of all this, they're encountering people every day, most of whom mean well, but who can say and do things that inadvertently make the fire victims feel even worse. But the fire survivors say nothing, because they don't want to offend or ruffle well-meaning feathers. Besides, they're reserving their energy to start from zero with nothing. They wake each day to the reality that no, it wasn't a nightmare; their home really did burn in a fire. It really is all gone.

There's no Dear Abby Carr Fire book to tell us the most civilized way to navigate these rude, unruly times. But we grow wiser each day, and learn as we go. I confess that some of the things on my Carr Fire don't list are sins I've committed myself. For that, I feel crappy.

But I will do better now because I know better.

Carr Fire etiquette is similar to death etiquette. No wonder, since those who've lost homes to the Carr Fire have experienced a death - of their sanctuary, their security, their shelter, their memories, their belongings, their sentimental reminders, and on and on and on.

We can say, "I can imagine how difficult it must be," but really, unless it's happened to us, we cannot imagine. Not really. Even so, here are a few things I've learned that I'll pass onto you, mainly in the area of what not to do and what not to say.

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Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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55 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    Another great one, dear Doni. All that you’ve written is all the more reason for me to admire Jim Dowling’s optimistic piece.

    • Thanks.

      Jim’s perspective is just one, and for as many Carr Fire survivors there are as many ways to cope and see their situation. (And how’s your place up in eastern Shasta County, Beverly?)

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        We dodged the bullet – and are very grateful. Our timing, however, was perfect: got rid of the generator last month. Tossed four trash cans worth of food due to the five-day power outage, but that truly is just stuff.

        • You certainly DID dodge a bullet, dear Beverly! I can relate to the timing issue, but in reverse. A few days before the Carr Fire exploded I was going to put my brand new kayak up for sale. Now, with the majority of Whiskeytown destroyed, trying to sell a kayak in Redding would be about as popular as an outdoor patio heater.

          Timing, indeed.

  2. Thank you, Doni. Your suggestions as well as Julie Kaplan’s from her article here on August 6th are so insightful.

  3. Shelly Shively says:

    Excellent advice, Doni. I especially appreciated your funeral-crashing comparison.

  4. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    And “moving on to normal” will also remain a highly personal event. Not everyone will move into that territory at the same time . . . . and some never will. I had lunch the other day with a friend who lost everything in the Happy Valley fire a few years ago. She has still not moved into the “normal” part and was traumatized all over again by the threat of the Carr Fire. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of reopened scars. Patience and generosity . . . with others and with ourselves.
    Thank you, Doni for a playbook to a game in which NO one ever willingly participates.

  5. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Great advice. I’ve turned down several offers to go on tours of burned neighborhoods, and we avoided veering off of Hwy 299 on our drive up to Whiskeytown NRA. I did cruise up and down our street in Sunset Terrace, mostly to assess just how close we came to losing the house we own there. Once was enough.

    If you have friends who were burnt out of their homes and are still bouncing around trying to find a long-term housing solution, one of the more generous things you can do is offer up your spare bedroom(s) if you have them, if only for a week. Hosting refugees isn’t easy—they’re emotionally bruised, and they’ll likely feel like they’re imposing. Maybe their kids and pets come with the package. Suck it up.

    Regarding the insurance-related questions, I know of one family who are asking themselves, “Do we rebuild? Do we even stay in the Redding area?” (I didn’t ask—they volunteered.) They’re retired, so it’s not like local jobs are a source of inertia. If it was me? I’d be spending a lot of time looking at maps.

    • Well, Steve, you own a house in Sunset Terrace, so you’re part of the neighborhood. (Not that you need my blessing 😉

      I LOVE your advice about offering spare rooms to those who are still bouncing around in search of a place to land. And you are right about the fact that hosting refugees wouldn’t be easy. One of of ANC’s people who lost her home said she might get around to writing a piece that talks about her awareness that Carr Fire refugees come with little literal baggage, but tons of emotional baggage. They are grateful, and want to be good guests, but they’re spun out and traumatized and displaced. Your line — “suck it up” – made me laugh.

      I do wonder how many people will leave our area soon, whether because they lost their homes and got a hunk of money to start over somewhere that’s not covered with ash; or people who were on the brink of leaving Redding for all the reasons (crime, transients, poverty, etc.) we’d discussed here at length.

      But I confess, I agree with you, that I’d be checking out maps, too, not that it hasn’t crossed my mind. But where to go? That’s the million-dollar question.

    • Linda Cooper says:

      Steven Towers, I always appreciate what you write. Especially when you once suggested that maybe ANC will have a “buy back” for editing after the send/post button. Like FB. My words not yours! I relished what you wrote now about “spending a lot of time looking at maps.” We tried. I just didn’t have it in me to cruise around. So, Chico it probably is. And regardless of what some say about dealing with this over the net, we have needed to remain in some proximity. We are still in Redding, and bouncing back and forth. So far, it’s helping.

  6. Robert Scheide Sr. says:

    Timely advice and needed. We all have faced delicate times when friends die, or get burned out in a fire and stammer around not knowing what to say and how to say it. Guilty same as you. An old friend of mine got wiped out and stupid ole me asked “Did you save your boat. Fishing had been a big part of his life, so of course, he saved his boat, stupid question.

    Lookie Lous have always been a problem for firefighters. Back in the day I was a volunteer firefighter and when we had a spectacular incident we would be swamped by people to come and see the tragedy.

    It will take a long time for all those who want to rebuild I wish them all the strength to plow on. Best of luck to all.

    • You’re right. We’re probably all (well, except Marilyn, above, who was once head of Mercy Hospice) guilty of putting both feet in our well-intentioned mouths.

      Don’t beat yourself up about the boat question. I stupidly asked a burned-out friend about her insurance, and blush at the thought of it now. (Forgive me, Joanne!)

      Lookie loos during a disaster are the worst. They get in the way and actually put first responders’ lives in peril.

      As an aside, Mr. Scheide, I love when you comment. I can see similarities between you and your son’s writing styles and sensibilities.

      • Robert Scheide Sr. says:

        Thanks Donnie. I use to do a lot more. I wrote a very political for years but when Trump became president I backed off. These guys are vindicative enough to go after my pensions and I can’t risk that.. Sign of the times I suppose.

  7. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    Thank you, Doni – really helpful and timely.

  8. Stella prudhomme says:

    Such timely advice for all of us! Thanks, Doni!

  9. Anne Peterson says:

    Huge thanks, Doni! You answered many questions I’ve had and given us a powerful refrain to live by.

    • You’re welcome, Anne. I’m not that hip, but I’ve had access to many stories, and have learned from my mistakes.

      (By the way, it’s so nice to see you here, Anne. Thank you for being in the family of ANC’s subscribers.

      I don’t know how many readers realize this, but what you all have in common here – those who are commenting to my column, and other “premiere content” ;0 – is that you are all paid subscribers.

      Non-subscribers are welcome to comment on the 90-percent of free content we offer, but behind the paywall, the commenters are all a very select, very special, VERY appreciated group of paid subscribers. Thank you!

  10. Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

    Fine article. Great advice. Thank you, Doni on behalf of a lot of fire casualties out there. Be patient. There’s a myriad of emotions running amok. Confusion, fear, resentment, sadness and hope to name a few. It’s overload. There is no semblance of normal routine yet, so don’t expect things to settle for a while. Ah, but when they do? Those kind words, the hugs, the listening – you can’t know the impact small and sincere gestures played in a person’s survival or their long-lasting benefits to this community as a whole.

    • Well said, my friend.

      Is there anything else you’d like to add to the list .. not necessarily from you and Donna, of course, but perhaps from a fellow fire casualty survivor? We can take it. Really.

  11. Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

    Maybe this is simply a personal thing, but we hear the words, “so sorry for your loss,” many times a day from virtually everyone we run into. The phrase says quite enough. Don’t wax too eloquent in your shared feelings of grief or your understanding of our situation. There are well-meaning people out there so fascinated with what we’ve been through they can’t let the topic go until they’ve heard every harrowing detail of that fateful night. It may be fragile, but we are doing okay and trying very hard to get past that night and its consequences. I’m sorry for your loss is perfect.

    • Linda Cooper says:

      I loved what you wrote, Jim Dowling. Just asking here, about why my husband and I seem to cringe at the words, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We are now avoiding mention of our situation. To avoid the words. I don’t have time for therapy, just wondering if you have a perspective on this. Pushing the post comment button anyway.

      • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

        Linda, it’s on the late side for me. Faculties are waning. I wish I could posit answers or comforting advice. Regardless, here’s my take. This community of Redding is more unified than ever in its desire to do whatever’s needed. We, the recipients of that goodwill are dazed, confused and not sure how to handle it. We’ve never played the victim role before and we’re not very good at it. How about we all take a deep breath, reach across the aisle and listen very carefully…try to fathom the needs of the other side and paths that will get us there. I’ve never been more hopeful.

    • That helps, Jim. It makes sense.

  12. Jennifer Arnold says:

    As always, spot on article, Doni! It’s always hard to know what to say when you’ve never walked in someone else’s shoes. I’m probably not alone in that I tend to say very little because I don’t want to sound like an ass and hurt someone even more, but then I worry that I haven’t said enough. (I know, I know…overthinker here!) I’m trying to do more tangible things…the gift cards are a great idea!

  13. Linda Cooper says:

    The greatest value Doni Chamberlain’s article gave me, is that I’m not alone. The thrill of, “it’s not just me!” And sure, I accept the invitation to add to the list because, really, if you all can take it – right now I can give it.

    All she wrote, and some new ones:

    I explained to someone that our cat, Louis, is now living with a friend permanently in his old stomping grounds of Shasta. He resided in a cage at the VCA animal hospital from the very first night of our evacuation, for two weeks. (By the way, VCA refused to charge us the boarding fees.) Our friend’s home was saved, and she offered to adopt him. It’s a good fit. Not only is it a happy home, we didn’t know where the hell we would be. Plus, he never liked a litter box, or (duh) traveling. The said someone replied, “I think you should have your cat with you anyway.” What the heck? She further elaborated that well, “then maybe when you get a new home, you could get a rescue dog.” After all, “it would be good exercise for you to walk a dog.” I know I’m overweight, and I also know I’m not making this up.

    I got the offer of someone’s “old towels and sheets that I don’t use anymore. They are in fair condition.” Ms. Chamberlain’s reference to this was priceless to help me identify the reasons for my lack of gratitude, and worth the price of admission to reading her article. Just for that alone.

    Uh, we broke down and got the iPhones. Even husband. I don’t think the insurance will pay.I stumped them with, we never had cell phones, however, we obviously don’t have access to our landline. They will get back to us. Ha, ha. I seriously don’t want to hear “they are so easy to use,” one more time. No sir or Ms. Please don’t go there. I admit they are growing handy. Life and learning curves are a little hard to maneuver right now. Okay?

    Onward to some good stuff, because there’s only so much we can handle at one time:

    The fireman from Colorado in our hotel lobby at breakfast asked me how I was. I sarcastically replied, “just great. It’s not everyday I lose a house and contents and memories.” He had the most loving expression in his eyes that I have ever witnessed from a stranger. He asked if he could give me a hug. Uh, sure sugar. Then he whispered, I really do know how you feel. I just lost my home in the Colorado fire too. Gulp. So, giving hugs are good things for the survivor’s.

    A former work buddy emailed me at the hotel. (For some crazy reason my Mac was by the front door and I grabbed it. It’s been a life saver because I am cell phone challenged, and it has helped greatly with taking care of business. Yes, I have insurance.) She wanted to take us out to lunch. Or not. Our choice. Just a visit in the lobby if that was better. That was so cool. She said her Nana would be with her, was that okay. Sure. Over pizza at Ultimate, Nana hands me an envelop with ten, one-hundred dollar bills inside. Yikes! “Uh, Nana, I don’t know what to say.” This dear woman from an old Red Bluff family replied, “why you say thank you.” Okay. So, yeah. Cash works. I was in a gas station and was surprised they didn’t take Visa. Cash only. Then I remembered Nana’s cool one-hundred in my wallet.

    A member of my library book group sent us an Amazon gift card for buying books!

    My husband’s pals at the senior center, who he plays ping pong with, handed him a card with about $500 in cash inside. He showed me. Tears. Just tears.

    We were evacuated a second time from the Travel Lodge on Market. Hotels full. Wandered to Shasta College. Impacted! On the car radio we heard that the Grace Baptist Church was “opening their doors for anybody.” There we went. Such kind folks. So much grace. I later went back and gave them one of my new $100 dollar bills, which they struggled with accepting. I explained that I didn’t have the words for my gratitude to be in a safe, peaceful and loving place, but I did have some money. Thanks, Nana!

    A friend sent me a message that she knew of a furnished house via her sister and husband. OMG. The mother had passed three months ago. A month to month which is like gold right now. Being out of a hotel is also like gold right now. And it’s informal, and the owner’s are so kind. Just wow. I started doing the math after two weeks with the cost of having to remain in the hotel.

    And try this one on. We were having dinner with former neighbor and survivors at CR Gibbs next to the hotel. When the server brings us our bill, he lays three one hundred dollar bills on the table and said, “someone heard you lost your homes and wanted you to have this.” We couldn’t find the source of this good will. Our neighbors and my husband returned the money. I told them I was keeping one of the bills. It was going into a frame at my new house, to turn it into a home with memories.

    When I first moved to the Redding area in 1992, I was transferred for work.It was really a “forced” transfer because California State Parks was going through a reorganization. I asked a worker friend, “so what’s Redding like?” She thought about it, and replied, “you will find pockets of poverty, however, the people are generous of spirit.” Generous of spirit. I have found this to be so true.

  14. This will be trouble for me, but all of us have a bit of St. Thomas. It’s normal and may be important here. Driving through once familiar neighborhoods after several days, slowly, but steadily, no pictures is a way of believing and understanding that no reporter or writing can convey. There are valuable lessons which lie among the ashes. So far, there has been little coverage about what worked, what didn’t. People don’t need the advice of others to remove flammable material, they can see in the ruined habitat how much work we all need to shoulder in restoring what we had, in doing a better job going forward. Where the inspector died is a graphic warning about the need to obey evacuations. He was doing his job. Those who stayed were risking more like him. Some people need this first person impact to get serious about this tragedy and why what you say about the impact is the truth. Jesus let His follower see because He knew there was no better way to cement the message. Anyway, 299W has valuable, unarguable evidence of the value from controlled burns: a little smoke in the spring and fall instead of dangerous air all summer, a recovering, resistant forest instead of a moonscape. Seeing it is believing it!

  15. Candace C says:

    Great article Doni. Thank you for reinforcing my newly found philosophy of what to say/how to act in situations I’m not familiar with or have little knowledge of, “Show up and shut up”.

    • LOL, well, SUASU might be a little harsh. (It reminds me of the groom’s mother’s role in the wedding, “Show up, shut up and wear beige.” )

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        I quoted you below.

      • Candace C says:

        Doni,
        Lol, I get how SUASU may sound harsh. It’s meant more as a personal reminder that in some situations it’s best to just show up and listen instead of trying to control the narrative. Because sometimes people just need you to show up and listen.

  16. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Thank you for a good laugh, and cry. ” if you’ve ever evacuated, as I have, then you know first-hand how bat-shit crazy our minds go under that kind of fight-or-flight pressure. That’s how we end up with a box of bras and flip flops but no underwear and the checkbook is still sitting in the top desk drawer with a stack of cash near our prescription glasses and medications.”
    Evacuate in haste and repent in leisure.
    When you are packing for evacuating you’re also not thinking things like “How will I occupy myself for the days I may be living in an evacuation center with a lot of strangers (some who snore)? Knitting? A good book?” or “Will it always be extremely hot? Maybe I should grab a jacket in case it cools down someday.”
    Truly thoughtless or snide remarks do have their place in this tragedy. I realized the anger I felt over a pious comment about “karma” and “stuff” felt better than the despair I had been experiencing.
    The generosity Bob and I have experienced is overwhelming. One friend said he and his wife decided to donated to one “Carr Fire Victim” instead of an organization that might misappropriate monies a generous community had donated for those victims.
    My friend Maria (not her real name which is Doni) handed me a computer she wasn’t using so that my husband could be reunited with his 40 year old diary and the music and history files he hasn’t seen in weeks.
    Thank you again for this article.

    • Oh, Joanne, I can’t understand what would make someone use the words “karma” and “fire” in the same sentence, but I’m so sorry you had to hear that.

      Who would think to bring entertainment for the evacuation center, or a jacket in July? Now we know.

      I personally feel better about contributing directly to Carr Fire survivors, rather than organizations.

      I’m glad you can still laugh, Joanne, and crying is OK, too. xo d

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        I read a comment by a “pastor” who claimed that California’s fires were payback by God because of our acceptance of homosexuality. And some may wonder why I have no use for organized religion. But, is that comment much different from the Bethel elder who gave the very un-Christian Easter sermon?

  17. Patricia Patricia says:

    Spot on!!! Your article says it beautifully and is needed during these difficult times. It is possible for any of us, no matter how well meaning, to put our for in our mouth trying to say the right thing. Well done, Doni! My heart goes to to all my friends who have lost so much and to all the others I don’t know who have been traumatized, as well. The horrendous fall out -emotional, physical, spiritual and financial — is only beginning to show. REDDING STRONG will need to be our mantra for a very long time.

  18. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    For me, I believe the safest mantra is
    Listen, hug . . . . shut mouth!
    I always need to practice my listening skills anyway.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      What was it Doni once wrote about the mother of the groom? Something like show up, shut up, wear beige. Maybe ours should be show up, hug, wear work gloves – and bring gift cards.

      • You’re so funny, Beverly. I just wrote that above, to Candace C., in response to her Show up and Shut up.

        I like yours better: Show up, hug, wear work gloves and bring gift cards. Who wouldn’t want that?

  19. Susan Tavalero says:

    I know how it is….I have been there. Things will never ever be normal again. But the “new normal” will eventually come. 3 to 10 years is what they told us.

  20. Eleanor Townsend says:

    Doni, your ‘don’t say its’ will surely be a saving grace for so many who do not need the great ‘advice’ and ‘why didn’t yous’ that some people feel it important to express. Some of the examples would be laughable if they weren’t prove-ably, hideously true.
    ‘The words that carry most knives are the blind phrases searching to be kind” (Stephen Spender : “The Double Shame”)
    Let’s all suit up, show up , shut up.
    Hugs. I’m sorry for your loss. And Mean It.

    Thanks, Doni, and to all the commentators for your wisdom. If only everyone in the County (and beyond) would read this. And act on it.

  21. Kelly Salter says:

    In terms of returning to “normal” or how different survivors react, Andrew Deckert sent out an email that had words of wisdom from Laura Porter (an Adverse Childhood Experience/Adverse Community Environments [ACE] Interface Champion co-trainer) that are valuable:

    “As you know, adversity is cumulative. So the people who will be most affected are those who have had childhood adversity and adult adversity before the fires. But, people will expect that they should be able to respond just like everyone else regardless of history of adversity. So, normalizing differential impacts of adversity will be helpful, as will supporting development of teams. Teams can increase the odds that all the executive function skills (individual higher cognitive skills like planning, judgement, delayed gratification) will be in place for accomplishing a goal Since stress-related individual executive dysfunction is normal, and people with high life-course accumulation of stress will have more of this type of dysfunction, building teams and identifying great coaches will be important. I have noticed that parents of children on the autism spectrum are often fabulous team coaches because they are comfortable giving very clear and explicit behavioral and emotional regulation coaching directions – and that is needed during times with this much stress.”

  22. Carla Clark says:

    Gift certificates are a great idea. I found the tote bags of old clothes really stressful but I didn’t want to be unkind. On the other hand, a couple of hours at the Eddie Bauer outlet made me feel almost human!

  23. Doug Mudford says:

    I didn’t read your great article until after I ran into a dear friend who lost a house. I hugged her and asked how she and her husband were physically because I knew it was a close call.

    It was so difficult not to talk of the things you warned against…because I genuinely care for these people. But you were right…it’s just so intensely, white-hot personal that asking about it at this stage diminishes the friendship, the exact opposite of my intentions.

    Good advice Doni.

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