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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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Susan Tavalero says:

    Jim, I can agree with 100% of your story! We lost our home in the Boles Fire in Weed 5 years ago this coming September. No sleep, talking about what we lost, not feeling alone, rebuilding on our old lot, watching the progress, we have been there!! Time will heal most of those thoughts, but there is still moments when I see something or hear someone say something and a second of pain comes back. But it is few and far between now. Carry on and keep moving forward, I hope you find the joy in a concrete truck as much as I do!! It means progress!

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Thank you, Susan. I remember that one. The Boles Fire. A real glimpse of how a wind-driven fire can race thru a neighborhood. Thanks for the reassuring words, too. Those damn flashbacks visit us all the time.

  2. Avatar Barbara Grosch says:

    Jim, as a person who lost her home in the Jones Valley fire (1999) I can fully identify with what you wrote. Our first days after the fire were spent in a daze, trying to decide whether to rebuild or not, mourning the loss of family heirlooms. We were both working full-time so there were lots of other things pulling at us too. We did rebuild and had that joy of watching a new house rise up with our same, wonderful neighbors surrounding us. Today we still go to the phrase “before the fire or after the fire” timeline to decide when things happened….seems strange, but there it is! I wish you both well in your new home, in a neighborhood that you love. It does get better!

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Thank you, Barbara. We’ve gotten thru the “totally dazed” and most to the mourning period. I’m thinking a real sense of normalcy can’t be far off. The new house rising is like a beautiful sunrise. Thanks for the well wishes.

  3. Avatar Mimi Moseley says:

    What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for telling it. My heart aches and rejoices with you as I read your words.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Thank you, Mimi. I have my motives for telling this story. I’ve always felt it important to document things, especially major events that come my way. Another is this site. Anewscafe has been good to me. I’m happy I can contribute.

  4. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Hello Jim, I am a former resident of Shasta. We lived there for twenty-six years, and also lost it all in the Carr Fire. Well, not all. Because thankfully the Highway Patrol was alerted by our neighbor that she couldn’t rouse us, and they entered using the hidden key. I sleep with a headset on. Husband claims he would have eventually heard the chain saw crews outside working hard. Trying to save what couldn’t be saved. That was 1am, and we were going to pack our cars in the morning – just to be safe. Our one preparation in advance was to acquire a new cat carrier at the beginning of fire season. Amazingly, Louis the cat ran into it, even with all the fire trucks and noise.

    I want to reassure you that your article is not insensitive at all. In fact, you had dear husband and me laughing at times. And I enjoy thinking of myself as a dispersed dandelion seed! Sounds better than “she who bailed.” We landed in Chico, after purchasing a home in three hours. I’m a nester, and approaching 70.
    We decided to buy in the burbs, no nearby forest for us we thought. And then we were evacuated during the Camp Fire. It was my great pleasure to leave a note on our unlocked door that read, “Dear Firefighters, the door is open, feel free to enter and take refuge, we have nothing left to steal.”

    Your description of addressing the contents portion of the insurance is priceless. Dear husband spent days on it. After the private insurance contractor whispered in our ears “I have never not met the deductible,” I asked for help and intervention with our former son-in-law. In fact, it was this money we used to help buy the Chico house. Although we kept the insurance agent informed about our house buying, when escrow was closing, he said he made a mistake. Something about calculations with the land values being higher in Chico than Shasta. Whoops. The irony of insurance is fascinating to me. When we bought insurance for Chico house, I told the agent we didn’t need to have the contents portion so high. We had nothing left. She said it was required. Okay.

    And losing one’s personal history has been a challenge. My husband refers to this as losing context. We are learning there is opportunity with this change. Nobody will ever read my diaries and journals! And yes, we too had many angels along our path helping us. We did attend one counseling appointment, after dear daughter commented, “mom you were so mean on the phone.” Hum. Anyway, the counselor said, “people don’t get it unless they have through it.” And, Jim, you get it. I’m so happy that you are re-building Shasta. Bravo to you and your wife!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Linda said, “My husband refers to this as losing context.” I saw a t-shirt recently: “Straight Outta Context” That seems to apply to so many things.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Wow, Linda. I actually got lost and a little choked up reading your account. That part about journals and diaries really hit home. And then, both fires! Clearly, you’re still sane. A sense of humor helps, doesn’t it?

  5. Avatar Carla Clark says:

    We have a similar story. The loss of all the photos and family mementos is the most difficult, along with the fate of our poor, unfortunate chickens and elderly cat.
    In our case, we decided to make a big change and have some new adventures while we are still young enough for it to be fun, so we will be off to the cool, misty north soon. I will always have strong ties in the Redding area though.
    I could really relate to the itemizing of the possessions! They tortured us with that for weeks, then finally just paid out the policy limit.
    Best of luck to you with your new home!

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Thanks, Carla. We had but one pet to lose and thank god our dog Willow was more than happy to hop aboard when the time came to evacuate. Hey, good luck with the move. Cool and misty has a nice ring to it.

  6. Avatar Ginny Hibbard says:

    God bless you and your wife through this time that has been dropped onto you. Thankful you came out with your lives, but at the same time sad that you lost so much.

    When I left my come, I came back to my grandparents wedding photo and the marriage licenses from both grandparents. When we left, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see those three things again in my life, but life goes on, even if I hadn’t. But life is so much nicer to have those three things…

    May your new home be everything you could want and enjoy, no matter what your age is! ;o)

    Blessings, again…….

  7. Dearest Jim, I felt a bit morbid asking you to share your story, for the very reason you describe so beautifully about the people who want all the gory details. So, thank you for indulging me, and I hope there was some measure of therapy that came from writing this.

    I love the way you express yourself; so wryly, so honestly, so authentically.

    I cannot even pretend to understand what it’s like to have my home and all my earthly possessions stolen by fire, but when I do go there, it’s just mind-boggling.

    I thank you for taking this time and energy and mental exertion to share such a personal story with us. I wish for you and Donna nothing but smoothly sailing from here on out. You deserve it!

    And who knows, maybe this time next year you can share the 2020 update, if you want.

    xo d

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Hi Doni. You’ve entered a “no guilt zone”. I assure you, there’s been something very cathartic for me in this exercise. Seriously, it’s been “just what the doc ordered.” Plus, I really enjoy feeling a connection to the folks above who have commented. We’re a community bound together by shared experience. New friends!

  8. Avatar Candace C says:

    Reading your story I felt somewhat like a misery voyeur. After seeing some of the comments shared by those who also lost their homes I think you telling your story is a powerful human connector. My heart goes out to anyone who has suffered that kind of loss. Glad to see you and your wife rebuilding. To echo Doni’s sentiment I also wish you and your wife smooth sailing.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      I didn’t intend to pull the reader into the misery pit. But now I’m beginning to wonder… Fact is, we’re doing fine, and better by the day. Barring the unexpected curves life hurls at all of us, the future looks pretty good. There are others in worse straits. I know one or two. My heart goes out to them.

      • Avatar Candace C says:

        Jim, oh no! I wasn’t meaning that you were making me miserable! Not at all! I was meaning I felt intrusive at first for the same reason I didn’t drive around and look at burned homes right after the fire. I’m very happy to hear you, you’re wife and your beloved dog are able to start the rebuilding of your home and your lives together .

        • Avatar Candace C says:


        • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

          I know. It’s more me than you — my reaction to the outpouring of goodwill. Heartening, but makes me suspect that many think we are worse off than we are. And thank you. Exciting times do lie ahead! On that note, I think I’ll go play with the dog.

  9. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Jim, I have nothing to add to the heartfelt comments above except Amen. Not only are you an outstanding photographer (did you have to replace your camera?), but you are also an extraordinary raconteur. Thanks for sharing. May your new home be erected without a single hitch.

  10. Avatar Gloria Speigle says:

    Glad I wasn’t home and my dog was with me.
    I miss Rons things and some art.
    I never saw the burned down house as mine was one of the first to have debris removal .
    Felt it was meant for me to be away.
    Very sad about the loss of life and habitat.
    My friend Brett kindly brought me a few charred things.
    Trying to love my new life and appreciate everyday.

  11. Terry Terry says:

    I would like to echo those who thank you for sharing your story so powerfully and so beautifully at the same time. On the anniversary of the fire, it really helps us all to have you articulate the experience so clearly. Thank you!
    I am so glad to hear that your rebuilding is going so well. What good news! ?

  12. Avatar Jesse Nelson says:

    Jim, thanks for your story. I completely relate to what you shared. We lost our home on Benson Drive and went through everything you shared. We were living in the property in a fifth wheel for almost a year now. Going through the rebuilding/clean up process. Just couldn’t face the permit process and rebuilding any longer. We bought another home in Shasta county. We will always be a part of the Old Shasta family and miss being there. Again, thanks for sharing, it really helps.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Good luck, Jesse. Everybody has their own story to tell. Yours sounds more complicated than mine. I hope it all works out. You sound like good Old Shasta folks. September isn’t that far off. Congrats on the new house.

  13. Avatar Laura Rathe says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Ours is a bit different as we decided not to rebuild on our land. After 20 years in Shasta County, we decided to move out of state. We spent 3 months in a campground, then decided to follow our children to Texas.
    For us, this was a difficult move, that ended up being an amazing journey and exactly what we needed to do. We are still in a rental, but our new home should be ready mid September.
    We are 10 minutes from our kids and grands
    We lost one kitty that haunts me …..

    We are glad to be out of CA

    • Avatar Laura Rathe says:

      Our house burned down on the 28th. We will spend Sunday at our new unfinished house with a couple bottles of wine, some beer, pizza , our kids and some new neighbors..we will try to loom ahead rather than remember all that we lost

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Laura – Three months in a campground! That is an amazing journey. Sad and/or joyous, we all love a meaningful story. I have to believe you have lived one. I hope you kept a journal.

  14. Avatar Karen Calanchini says:

    Thank you for posting your story. Our housekeeper lost their home in the Carr fire, and of now she had yet to open up and talk with me about it. I have gotten a little info, but she starts to cry. They are lucky in that they got busy with recovery immediately, they spent no time feeling sorry for themselves. They are building a new home on a new lot and will be in by Thanksgiving. She loves talking about the new home, and are now trying to find a furniture store that carries well made furniture that is going to last them.
    One cannot even begin to know the horror of the evacuation when all you had time to grab, was purse, 2 dogs and get into the cars to escape. The had family to go to and have lived on that property for months in a small travel trailer, which, in itself, is another horror story during winter months and now the heat.
    Recovery will take years for them.
    For all the stories I read on this post, thanks so much for telling the rest of us who felt the horror but did not physically experience it. I still have fear in my bones, and pray this summer goes by and we have no more fires in our area. So much recovery still going on and this, too, will take years.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Karen – And I thank you, too. Best of luck to the housekeeper. Our goal too, is to be in by Thanksgiving. My heart goes out to everyone in this area. We all experienced the fire, or its disruptions to some degree. On the local level, it was historic in magnitude. If you lost a house or pets…or worse, it’s a life changer. No way you get thru this unaffected. But I’m an optimist. At the risk of sounding trite, I like to think we’ll all look back some day and be proud of how we got through it as a community.

  15. You know what I love about our ANC family? Jim shares his story, and then others who’ve lost their homes relate, and share theirs, and the rest of us, we’re there to offer love and support. I thank all of you for making that possible. It’s a rare and wonderful thing that happens here.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Oh Doni…a big, overdue thanks to you and Shelley. Those crazy days following the fire were, to put it mildly, hellish. That meal you prepared was a godsend and the friendly, homey support you two offered did more for our morale than you know.

  16. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    Hi Jim, Best of luck with the rebuilding. Your pictures remind me so much of building our house. I know it will be worth it, and I wish you unending joy!

  17. Avatar James Patton says:

    Well done, Jim! I loved how you wrote your story about the fire.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Hey James! Thank you. I’m waiting to see more of those really fine paintings out of you.

  18. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    Oh my, reading these stories bring back the hell of last year. I have more than a few close friends and customers that lost every thing. But one year on have recovered and feel well again. Jim, your story was so well written and tells the story for many. Thank you, and bless you and your wife. I pray we have no such fires this year or ever again.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Thank you, Janine. These stories do bring it all back, don’t they. They foster a common bond, too. I don’t believe anyone was entirely spared the effect of these fires. Could be my imagination, but I think many folks in this town might just be a degree or two nicer these days.
      Even as I reply, I’m hearing about new fires starting up in Oregon. I fear it ain’t over yet — fires that is.

  19. Avatar Peggy Elwood says:

    Thanks for sharing your story…so glad to hear the new home is under construction. Please update us when you are moved in and ready to pick out some paintings…

  20. Avatar Kathy MacPhee says:

    I couldn’t read this until this morning. We too lost our home and as I say “our history”, not just our immediate family history but everything we had from parents, grandparents and beyond. My brother said we lost our family’s history. We had just moved to Redding and had been in our home exactly 11 months to the day. Jim, you expressed your tie to your land and we were just getting to know our land. In fact after the fire my husband said he could finally see the boundary of our property. He never knew where it was, too many manzanitas and trees. But one thing that made this hard was not having a support group. We knew very few people. We had moved here to be closer to our daughter, son-in-law and grandsons. We had no close friends and had only known our neighbors a short time. Some I have never met to this day. I have forced myself to get involved with the church I attend. I did find a support group, though it is women only no men. My husband, on the other hand, stays home or goes up to our property and cuts up dead trees, weed whacks and envisions the new home we are rebuilding. Yes, we decided to rebuild too. Fourteen homes were destroyed in our neighborhood, one survived, and only three are rebuilding at this time. I wonder about the isolation and being out in the boonies again. We too live in town now and you get spoiled with everything so close by, including my daughter and family. Our house will not be done until Spring 2020. I wish we could have met you. My husband was/is? a model railroader and of course lost all of that plus all his art supplies, works and spirit. We are hanging on though at times our grief and sadness is overwhelming. I tell him we have only one direction and that is forward. My heart breaks for all of us who lost “our histories”. It feels good to write this down, if only for myself.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Kathy, it’s so good but sad to read your story. I hope it’s a tiny bit cathartic for you.

    • Jim Dowling Jim Dowling says:

      Kathy – So many parallels in our experience. Fortunately, some old photos were in my sister’s possession, many miles from the fire. But, I was the family history buff and repository for old documents. Everything I had accumulated over the years vanished. You just don’t think about this stuff until it’s too late. The land has been my salvation. I go there daily, sometimes to tackle the never-ending job of clearing away dead trees and brush — and sometimes just to revel in the progress and dream about what it’ll be like in our own home again. So many parallels. Yes, one direction, forward.

  21. Avatar Larry Harris says:

    All I can say, Jim, is that I’m sure glad that you, Donna and Willow are still with us, making history.