One Year Later

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A note from Doni: One year ago today, the Carr Fire began a reign of terror that torched the north state, and with it, destroyed more than 1,000 homes, including Jim and Donna Dowling’s in the town of Shasta, just west of Redding. Jim wrote about it last year in “Dug from the Ashes”. Please join me in welcoming Jim back with this updated story. 

I will start by saying that this is my story. It will differ from others. Everyone who went through the Carr Fire has their own story to tell. We’ve all done our best to cope in the aftermath. It is my hope that I will not come across as insensitive to what anyone has endured this last year.

When you lose your home to fire, for a while you attain a weird sort of celebrity status. It’s like you wear an invisible sign saying, CFV (Carr Fire Victim). The phone rings. Someone from the paper wants an interview. You are cornered at dinners and gatherings. Everyone wants the story in graphic detail. Usually things start off polite enough. “How you two holding up? We’re so sorry, etc, etc,”. After that, and seeing you’ve held up nicely, the gloves come off. The whole enchilada, please. What was it really like? Weren’t you frickin’ scared? And as someone who enjoys a good story much as anyone, I can get sucked in. Problem is, you go over it so many times, tweaking it here and there, that the original, truest recollection gets blurred in time. I shall endeavor to give an honest account, reign in that urge to embellish.

On the surface, our narrative is familiar. Like many, we lost pretty much everything and floundered for a time. If sleep cycles and tempers are indicators of mental health, we were skating on the edge. To survive we had to push through a miasma of initial shock and confusion and ignorance of how to proceed. It helped that we weren’t alone. A whole community was reeling right along with us. Refugees from a world turned upside down. Some would be lucky enough to come back to homes intact and routines easy enough to restore. Others, like Donna and me, would bounce around for weeks until we landed a rental in downtown Redding. This would be a good place to insert a big, heartfelt thank you to Jim and Rozanne who took a big risk and rented their beautiful, fully furnished house to the Dowlings, a desperate couple with a dog.

We had to educate ourselves about details of our insurance policies, what aid was out there for us. We had to put pride aside and accept that we are indeed victims and accepting money and help from others is well, what you do to make it thru. It’s a good thing, in fact. Those acts of kindness won’t be forgotten.

We had decisions to make. Do we stay and rebuild or take the money and run? Purchase a home elsewhere? Start anew with new friends in a new community? Three things weighed heavily in our decision: a community of friends, age (both of us 65) and deep ties to a piece of land. I’ll admit the land bond is probably more my thing, but we both love our 2 ½ acres.

Next step: Find a contractor. Here’s where serendipity and dumb luck stepped in. Understand that in the weeks following the fire it was mass confusion. Rumors and misinformation abounded to the point where hopes of rebuilding anytime soon seemed impossible. Not enough contractors, shortage of materials, new codes, and look at Santa Rosa a year later…only a handful of homes being built. Meanwhile, as if life wasn’t chaotic enough, we spent afternoons trying to itemize every item we ever owned to get much-needed money we assumed we had coming from the insurance company. In case you haven’t had the pleasure, itemizing is pure torture. Just when you are needing and craving relief, you are required to revisit the catastrophe over and over and over, scouring your memory bank for every damn tool in the shed, the value of every painting on the walls. Fortunately, after three or four grueling months, the hounds called off the chase and our insurance company granted us 100% of the contents portion of our policy. As usual, I digress. Focus, Jim – back to the contractor. All along it’s been the magic of word of mouth. I knew a plumber from my morning hikes at Whiskeytown. He gave me a phone number and…voila!, we had our contractor, a very easy to work with guy out of Trinity County, a real gem.

So, here we are, one year later, spectators on the sidelines, watching a new home rise on the same plot of ground as the old place. At 6:30 in the morning it’s already a hive of activity. Dusty air reverberates with the roar of cement trucks heading up the drive, while nail guns blast away at plywood flooring and buzzing Skil saws ready lumber for waiting hands. It’s mostly young guys in tool belts doing stuff that makes my back ache to watch. Does this excite us? Oh, hell yes. It’s really happening! Paint colors, laminate floors and counter tops are the topics of the day. What a difference a year makes!

The new home represents a measure of reclaiming our previous lives. But only a measure. I’m not yearning to have the old life back. The fire took that. Wedding photos, mementos going back over a century, signed books, a stack of journals – all consumed by flames. If I died tomorrow, there’d be little tangible proof I ever existed. Depressing, but true. I strive not to dwell on loss. Time remaining is too precious. I believe the same fire that erased so much of my past has invited me to look at things differently. See that everything I do from this day forward is important, part of a new legacy, a new identity. Simply stated, the indelible message forged by the Carr Fire is: Dude, you are on limited time and have been granted a new start. Get on with it!

Until it’s completed, some months away, we’ll just have to bide our time. Not that we haven’t enjoyed our sojourn in town, mere walking distance from the shopping mecca that Dana Street is, but it’s high time the Dowlings head back to the hills. Out there, west of town, is a quieter existence we’ve come to miss. Except that this time around it may be quieter than we ever dreamed. Empty solitude awaits. We’ll have barren lots to each side of us. Our old friends and neighbors elected not to stay and have dispersed like dandelions seeds. Places like Eugene, Idaho, Shingletown and Red Bluff. I get it. Who wants to start over when you’re 70 years old? We miss them and wish them well. Meanwhile, their property, you ask? Last I heard some were trying to sell, but it appears no one’s buying, so no one’s building. I wonder if there could be more to this story, something to do with the issuance of new insurance policies in fire prone areas. I sure hope not.

So there you have it, my story. If any of you, our former neighbors, should happen to read this and feel the prick of envy, think of Sisyphus. A veritable mountain of work isn’t going away. There are more trees to clear, weeds to whack, burn piles galore, rock walls to mend. I harbor no illusions, we’re talking years…

Thank god for Ibuprofen and chiropractors.

Jim Dowling
Jim Dowling is a retired teacher and ex-railroad brakeman/conductor. He takes pictures, gardens and, on occasion, spins a decent yarn.
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