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Chico State

‘This Is Not Where It Ends’

Kelsea Kennedy walks down a path on campus near a pole banner that reads "Today Decides Tomorrow"
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Kelsea Kennedy walks along the Creekside Educational Garden as she is reflecting on her life post Camp Fire on Friday, November 1, 2019 in Chico, Calif. “Life is really different but it’s also, in some senses, the same. I go to work every day, my parents go to work, and I’m still on campus, just in a new role. I can be in Paradise, but if it’s not with the people who made it what it is, it’s not the same. I lean on my friends because I know they are going through the same exact things, and my family as well, and being in that same place helps. And I’m excited to keep moving forward. My friends and I also talk about how we have our whole lives to look forward to. This is always going to be a part of us, but we are hoping it is not going to define us. This is not where it ends.” (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Editor’s Note: As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, we are honoring its impact on our community with a series of stories embracing the themes of remembrance, recovery, and resurgence.

After losing their homes and communities in the deadliest and most devastating fire in California history, tens of thousands of individuals began to recover from a disaster for which there is no guidebook.

Among them were at least 310 students, faculty and staff at Chico State. Each journey is different, but these survivors share a common reality: it will be years before they feel a true sense of normalcy again.

At the six-month mark, five Wildcats Rise Fire Recovery Fund grant recipients shared stories of what their journeys have been like since November 8, 2018. Now approaching the one-year anniversary, they update us in their own words on their ongoing challenges and glimmers of hope.

Cindy Wolff and her husband smile on a boat off the coast of Maui, with the ocean stretching behind them.
Cindy Wolff and her husband, Steve Hammang, enjoyed a restful and relaxing break during a trip to Maui last month. The condo they stayed in was gifted to them by an alumna who read about their experience with the Camp Fire in Chico Statements magazine. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Wolff)

Professor Emerita, Nutrition and Food Science
Retired Director, Center for Healthy Communities
36-year Butte Creek Canyon Resident

Since May, Cindy Wolff has retired from Chico State and is living in her fifth home since the fire. Last spring, she was as adamant as the day she fled that she would not rebuild. Now, she and her husband are considering returning home to Butte Creek Canyon to build a small, fire-safe house.

The Camp Fire and the chaos of every day were so overwhelming. We now have a little more routine in our lives. Brushing your teeth, taking any medication, walking the dog—everything was blown out of the water, and in the last six weeks, we have seen those patterns re-established. It’s incredible how long that takes. Every day is a scramble for so long.

We are really yearning to get back to a regular life. We like our new house and are adapting to living in a neighborhood with streetlights, cars going by, leaf blowers, and other city sights and sounds. The absolute best part of our new in-town life is the neighbors. They have been over-the-top welcoming. That helps a lot.

It took until the last few weeks—10 months after the fire—for us to even begin to visualize that we could handle a rebuild. We don’t have the resources to build anything close to the beautiful house we lost. We are drawn to our real “home” though. My husband goes up to our property every other day or so to water and tend the trees and plants that survived the fire. Not easy when there is no power for the water pump. So, we haul a generator and power the pump that way and then use a network of hoses and buckets to keep our most valued plants alive over these many months of heat and no rain. That requires a strong love of our past home site. But I’ve been up there at most maybe four times. It’s still so difficult, I can hardly handle it. We had that controlled burn [near Stirling City] two days ago and that’s the first time I’ve handled smoke in the air without crying.

Everyone we know, including our relatives who lost their homes and moved away, are coming back for the reunion and the remembrance of the Camp Fire. We are uniting for it. It changed all of our lives. It’s like a birth or a death. It’s one of those monumental events that affect so many people in our family units. We all shared this enormous calamity. You have to recognize something like that.

Kelsea Kennedy poses for a selfie with her dad and mom at the build site for their new home.
Kelsea Kennedy and her parents regularly visit the Chico build site where they plan to make their next home. (Photo courtesy of Kelsea Kennedy)

Liberal Studies, ’19
Admissions Counselor, Office of Admissions
Lifelong Paradise Resident

Kelsea Kennedy has made the transition from student to graduate, and after a few summer months pondering her next steps, she accepted a dream job with the University’s Office of Admissions, where she worked in her undergraduate years. She continues living in Chico and supporting her parents and extended family who all lost their homes.

Life is really different, but it’s also, in some senses, the same. I go to work every day, my parents go to work, and I’m still on campus, just in a new role. I was excited to graduate because there was definitely a time that I was thinking “How can I do this?”

This summer, I worked at a coffee shop and worked to figure out if I wanted to go to graduate school or something different. I was then offered a temporary position with the Office of Admissions, so I’m working there again right now. I’m excited to have my foot in the door.

On a personal level, looking back, I know I wasn’t doing as well as I hoped people would believe. But I’ve worked through a lot of my grief, and I’ve been able to have a better outlook. I feel like it took forever for our lot to get clean, and waiting for my parents to decide what to do gave me a lot of anxiety.

My parents ended up buying property here in Chico, and it’s a comfort to know they are going to be taken care of and have something to look forward to. Until their new house is built, we are living in a townhome, with my uncle next door and my grandma living with us. It’s nice to have family so close. It’s challenging when people move away, and people have moved all over—Idaho, Arizona, Texas, Hawaii. And because we moved to Chico, I stopped going to church in Paradise. You miss seeing your people on a weekly basis. I feel like I’ve lost my community. My friends and I talk all the time about how we miss the people. I can be in Paradise, but if it’s not with the people who made it what it is, it’s not the same.

I lean on my friends because I know they are going through the same exact things, and my family as well, and being in that same place helps. And I’m excited to keep moving forward. My friends and I also talk about how we have our whole lives to look forward to. This is always going to be a part of us, but we are hoping it is not going to define us. This is not where it ends.

The Shields family poses for a group photo.
Kelly Shields, second from right, says the magnitude of tasks related to recovery can be a struggle but he finds joy in time with his family. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Shields)

Staff Member, University Farm
4-month Paradise Resident

After initially planning to purchase a modular home and place it on his Paradise lot, Kelly Shields and his wife, Sandy, closed escrow on a home in Chico in early October and are dedicated to building a new life. He continues working at University Farm, spending time with his family, and looking for hints of life as he knew it before the Camp Fire.

Driving down the mountain on the morning of the fire, trying to explain to our children on the phone that their parents might not make it out is a phone call we will never forget. In retrospect, giving instructions to my kids on what to do if we don’t make it down the hill must have been terrifying to them.

We remained optimistic in the months following, planning to rebuild, but the gravity of the situation slowly sunk in—it’s all just gone. With the fees and regulations, the cost of rebuilding from the ground up was more than insurance would cover. This last year has been trying, with our kids being forced to move out due to the small accommodations, my brother being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a dear friend of 25 years passing away unexpectedly at the age of 52 with kids the same age as ours and, most recently, another friend losing their home in the SoCal fires.

Work has been difficult on Sandy and me. With the constant weight of everything combined, some days are like being a deer in the headlights. With the loads of paperwork, phone calls, and dealing with just about every tragedy thrown at us, we take inspiration in the words our kids told us one night at dinner: “We are winners.”

As the whole episode has left us financially drained, our sole goal now is to find a way to get our son through Chico State. We are confident in this because, as they said before, we are winners. We have purchased a new home here in Chico, and with our family and dear friends we have made in the six years we have been in this community, we begin a new chapter with great optimism and excitement.

Sabrina Hanes stands outside her trailer and leans over to smile at her daughter as she adjusts her unicorn bike helmet.
Sabrina Hanes and her daughter, Aroara, continue to be challenged with adapting to trailer life and the emotional trauma of the fire. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Student, Child Development
11-year Paradise Resident

Sabrina Hanes is taking a break from school as she struggles with the financial challenges of the fire and the emotional struggles that have plagued her and her young daughter since they fled their home. Now living in Los Molinos north of Chico, she still hopes to return and complete her degree but is unsure how long it may take before that’s possible.

As we approach the year mark of a day that will forever be etched in our memories, I reflect back on what this past year has been like. Nearly a year has passed, and we are still living in our trailer, which in itself presents its own challenges—things breaking, living in a small space with your child, and the shower (those with houses do not appreciate what it’s like to take a shower with hot water for more than five minutes). 

I had to take a leave from school, but I do not know when I’ll be able to go back, which is hard for me to swallow. I seem to be struggling more financially living in the trailer than I ever did in Paradise, which still doesn’t seem to quite make sense to me. Then there is the fact my car still has not been fixed from the damaged inflicted on it that day, and this is after putting almost $7,000 on it, so I’m still without reliable transportation.

As the year mark approaches, I feel we are no better than we were the first few weeks after. The things my daughter had I will probably not be able to afford again, and quite often my daughter is saddened over this. The fire did not just take our home and town that day, it took our sense of self because we have not been able to find our new normal. We tend to find ourselves engulfed with the emotions of anger and sadness more than anything else.

Will we ever find comfort in the new normal? I guess only time will tell.

Mandy and Larry pose for a selfie in front of their new home in Red Bluff.
Mandy Feder-Sawyer and her husband, Larry, have been working to remodel the 19th-century home they bought in Red Bluff. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Feder-Sawyer)

Faculty, Journalism and Public Relations
25-year Paradise Resident

Feder-Sawyer is settling into the home she purchased in Red Bluff with the payout from her insurance company. As she starts to feel more recovered, she took on a full teaching course load this semester, and has bonded with 2 of her students who are also Camp Fire survivors. This summer, she also worked with Frontline as an assistant producer on a documentary profiling people who are facing the long road to recovery.

As fires blaze throughout the state and countless people flee from flames, I see the ongoing trauma spread like, well, wildfire. It’s been a year since our town burned down. We ran together for our lives through embers, wind, and, finally, flames. Our severed community floated all over the country like the ashes that whipped through the wind on November 8, 2018.

For months my family lived in survival mode. Even though we now have a new home, we still wake up every morning wondering where we are. Are we in a hotel, on a friend’s couch, a blow-up bed? Are we in Sacramento, Chico, Centerville, or out of state? With the grace of family, friends, and even strangers, we got through the toughest transitions.

My family is creating a new space where everyone feels welcome, as they did at our Paradise home. We have been fortunate to always feel loved and cared for through this unfamiliar experience. People from all pieces of my whole 53 years of life have helped in more ways than I can name. People I have never met and might never meet sent cards bursting with care and sorrow.

The best times we’ve had since the fire include being able to spend time with our friends and family members. People have come from out of town, county, and state to visit and spend the night. Spending time with people we love is our first priority now and we approach it with a sense of immediacy.

I am hopeful that one day I won’t wake up with the fire being the first thing in my mind. But if it is forever, so be it. I am alive and loved.