While Mother Lode residents toiled to organize a truckload of aid for Camp Fire victims in Butte County on Monday, an elderly couple from the devastated city of Paradise was in Sonora, attempting to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Gene and Jessica Walters, both 90, have never lived in Sonora, their daughter Robin Walters said on Monday, and they never expected that they would join their daughter in her new home under such dire circumstances.
Their home destroyed, their minds traumatized, and owning only the clothes they were wearing as they fled from their home with the family dog — Gene and Jessica would now make a new life in Tuolumne County, Robin Walters said.
“They have absolutely nothing. They are now Sonora people. They are going to be here for the rest of their lives,” she said.
The family was fostered and grew in Paradise, a thriving Butte County hamlet in the Sierra Nevada foothills of more than 26,000 people. On Thursday, the Walters’ family home on the 6200 block of Pentz Road — on the east side of town, just north of destroyed Adventist Health - Feather River hospital — was consumed by a towering wall of flames.
Her parents opened their drapes to see their neighbor’s home across the street completely inundated by fire. The fire crept toward their home as they fled in their car. They watched vehicles and people burn, and they drove through the fire to safety, Robin Walters said.
“They just had to keep their eyes on the road and keep going. They were able to get out, but they didn't think they were going to make it.”
The couple took refuge in a church in Chico before they were retrieved by their daughter on Friday.
Robin Walters, of Sonora-area nonprofit Project Feed Our Kids, moved to the area from Paradise in 2006. The home she remembered no longer existed, she said.
“It’s devastating. I've lost friends that didn't get out and they are still sifting through everything. It was a beautiful community that's not there anymore.”
As of Monday afternoon, Cal Fire reported the Camp Fire had burned 113,000 acres across Butte County near the city of Chico, and was 25 percent contained.
The fire has already been characterized as the most destructive fire in California history and has killed 29 civilians and injured three others. So far, 6,453 residences and 260 commercial buildings have been destroyed, Cal Fire said.
Robin Walters said that despite the trauma of their escape, her parents were in good spirits about their future in Sonora.
After coming to safety, they were all smiles to know they had survived, she said.
“People have just opened up their hearts. It's amazing what they are doing. They are helping them with clothing, they are helping them with food.” she said.
The couple was being housed at a generous rate from the owners of the Heritage Inn on South Washington Street, for the time being, Robin Walters said, until more permanent lodging can be located.
“We got them back here. I’m so grateful they feel welcomed,” she said.
A massive local aid effort started with a social media post from a lifetime Sonora resident, who challenged her coworkers and friends to fill a U-Haul truck with blankets, pillows, food, water and clothing to support the Camp Fire victims.
As of Monday afternoon, Tatum Estes said a second U-Haul may be rented as the first truck was on track to be filled by the end of the day.
“We’re being God’s hands. A lot of people were saying thank you, thank you for doing this. But this is a dark time, and it’s sad. My heart was breaking,” she said.
By Monday morning, Estes’ social media post had exploded across the networks of local philanthropists and concerned citizens, generating more than 110 shares.
Outside of the Coldwell-Banker Mother Lode real estate office on Mono Way, boxes of clothing, toiletries and food towered outside of the open U-Haul truck. A half dozen women re-packaged and organized the goods, meeting a caravan of vehicles filled with additional supplies.
“It’s important to Paradise to know that there are people thinking of them, that help is coming. It’s a desperate situation, and it’s important to know that people are coming to help,” Sarah Robles, of Sonora, one of the organizers of the aid, said.
Amy Rudolph, of Sonora, another organizer, said the goods were intended to target the needs of specific individuals as opposed to being provided to shelters.
Needed most were gift cards to Butte County grocery stores such as Safeway and Walmart, pop-top canned foods, feminine hygiene products, diapers, wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bedding, pillow, and new clothing such as beanies, scarves, gloves and jackets, Estes said.
Food, water and toiletries would be prioritized in the shipment in order to meet immediate needs.
“These people lost everything and they have their need, but they don’t have anywhere to store them,” Estes said.
Overflow clothing, especially gently used items, will be donated to local nonprofit groups such as the Lambert Center or Nancy’s Hope, she added.
None of the women said they knew people personally that the aid would be delivered to, but they were in contact with some specific families in the Chico area that would receive deliveries. They also planned to drop the remaining items near the area once those people were serviced.
Estes said the group will accept donations outside of the Coldwell-Banker Mother Lode office at 14255 Mono Way between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Tuesday before they head to the disaster area Wednesday.
Other supply drives in the area will be held at JL Forged Fitness at 726 Mono Way, which will be open and taking supplies through Wednesday between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Organizer Jessica Metcalfe said she was working with Tuolumne County Indivisible to deliver items to Placerville on Thursday, where the California District Four Indivisible organization would distribute the aid.
“I just feel like our neighbors lost everything. Their entire town, so it's important to reach out, especially right before the holidays and make sure we can do as much as we can to help,” she said. “Frankly, we’re in a very similar fire zone.”
Metcalfe said she had already received gift cards and “a lot of diapers,” but any donations were appreciated.
The Savemart grocery store will also host a fundraiser at all stores, collecting donations to be distributed to the The Salvation Army. Public Affairs Manager Victoria Castro said in an email that 100 percent of proceeds donated by shoppers at checkout would be given to victims, and donations would appear on the receipt so shoppers have a record of a tax deductible donation.
Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Public Information Officer Emily Kilgore said on Thursday that approximately 33 TCU personnel and 16 local government firefighters were sent to Butte County.