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One Year After the Carr Fire: Still Recovering; Still Searching for a New Home

It’s been one year since my husband Bob and I lost our home and community in the Carr Fire. July 26, 2019 was the day when a small road-side fire that had started several days earlier near the Carr Power House traveled miles to sweep into the small town of Shasta and destroy more than 500 homes before moving on to the communities of Keswick, Igo and Redding.

We were notified of the evacuation by a sheriff’s car that drove up and down Swasey Drive blaring out the unbelievable news from a bull horn. My husband and I stayed 12 hours after this evacuation notice because there was no evidence that we were in danger.

The planes and helicopters that had been flying over our house for days to fight the fire in the Whiskeytown park stopped flying that day. I’ve learned recently that the air attack focused on areas closer to Redding. The air quality in my area was not bad. We never saw a fire truck or fire fighter in our area. The calm voice on the radio claimed that the fire was being held at Iron Mountain road which was north and east of us. We lived a mile from a Cal Fire Station, and probably a 10-minute flight from the Forest Service tanker base at the Redding Airport. I had recently visited the tanker base and photographed a couple of the planes and borate containers. I knew that a “Save” poster would be posted on our property. Or, my gosh, on the properties around me with swimming pools and two-story homes.

We left our home in the afternoon when a pillar of smoke and fire moved directly toward our home and we could hear the roar of the fire and the blasts of propane tanks exploding.

We were were lucky that we had time to pack two vehicles with most of our musical instruments and items from our “to go” list. It was several days before we learned that we had lost our home.

We stayed at friends’ homes for several days and and received a call with an offer for the use of an old ranch house in the Mt. Gate area. We became renter/caretakers of this wonderful old home that is filled with family belongings and furniture from several generations of a family that settled here around 1900. There are fruit trees, olive trees, huge oak and walnut trees, a few grape vines and a seasonal creek on the property. Bob spent hours this spring mowing and cutting weeds to make this place fire safe. We water trees and plants during the dry months. The house is part of family corporation and will stay in the family into the future.

Deer visit to graze, and the turkeys are just showing up with their babies. A red fox lives nearby and travels through on a regular basis. Several neighbor dogs come to visit. This has been a quiet, calm place to live during this last year while we recover and search for our next home.

We learned many things during the year following this disaster and I’ll share a few of them.

Simple things like filing a change of address with banks, the DMV and other agencies become more complicated and time consuming after a catastrophe. It took three visits to the bank to have our address changed, and took several months to get my new address filed with the DMV and to register my car. The woman who actually handed me my tags observed that having thousands and thousands of people displaced in California because of fires and floods strained the resources of that department. It was bad timing that thousands of people were also applying for a Real Id. After 2 tries, I was able to get my address changed with Social Security just last week. Forwarded mail travels to Los Angeles before arriving at the forwarded address a couple of weeks later.

If you live in a rural area, assume that you may very well be on your own in a wild fire. A neighbor who saved his home was retired from CDF and had larger water service pipes installed when he built his home. We payed a special fire tax for years, and were visited by CDF every year to evaluate how defensible our property was. “Defensible” implies that a property would be defended during a fire, but that may not be possible in fires like the Carr Fire and Camp Fire.

Communication breaks down in a disaster. Shasta lost phone service during the fire last July, and service was only recently restored. For a few months AT&T placed a message on our land line giving my cell phone number to people who called the number we had had for 35 years. The Shasta County Environmental Health department has the names and numbers of all of the families who lost their homes and opted in for the Cal Recycle property clearing process. It would have been wonderful if those numbers could have been shared with other agencies who are offering resources for fire survivors. After the Jones Fire in 1999, a business in Bella Vista had a bulletin board where families could post information about their status and leave messages for neighbors they hadn’t located.

We learned that a good community grapevine may be the only way to share important information to people who need it. It was difficult to evaluate the legitimacy of agencies that sprang up to collect donations after a disaster. I’ve found two resources that are credible. If you are still, like so many other people trying to make informed decisions about your property, take a look at the “disbursements” page of the Shasta Regional Community Foundation which gives monies to non-profits and agencies for Carr Fire recovery. I found this link in a description of the Community Disaster Relief Fund.

Another site that we’ve shared on our informal grapevine is the NorCal Community Recovery Team that is still in operation and offering help for people Carr Fire Survivors. For many families this knowledge comes too late as they’ve moved to other towns and states or given up the dream of rebuilding because the complexity of building codes and the thousands of dollars in permits required to rebuild a home built in an era of common sense building practices and fewer and less expensive permits.

Bob and I learned that we have compassionate, creative and supportive friends and family. Their words and actions helped us survive this year of loss, sorrow, anger and hopelessness. A local music teacher showed up with a load of everyday living supplies and a book of fiddle music. “This is the tune we’re going to be working on. Any questions?” A local jeweler restored (for free) several pieces of jewelry I managed to salvage from the ashes and also handled the reclaiming of the silver from a coin collection that became a molten glob during the fire. One friend gave me a computer. I said “I can’t accept this!” and she informed me that I could take it, or it was going to an electronic recycling facility. Another friend showed up with a box right after the fire and said….”Here’s your new junk drawer!” The box had tape, pencils, paper clips, a stapler, notepads, rubber bands, a pair of scissors and a trove of treasures we use every day. She obviously could image what “losing everything” means. So could friends who had lost homes in other fires, and a friend who revealed the loss of of her family home in the Yuba City Flood of 1955 when she was a child. There’s no doubt that losing your home is a traumatic life event. I can’t move around our temporary home without thinking of the people who came to our rescue. They are in my heart forever.

It’s been one year since the Carr Fire and we are slowly regaining our sense of purpose, hope and capacity for enjoyment. We plan to rebuild or sell our property and find a new home where Bob can pursue his passion for music, and I can set up another pottery studio. We have a long way to go still, but no longer feel overwhelmed by this journey.