If Raquelle Clement had her way, her family would leave Sonora and return to Paradise, the only town she’s ever known.
But her home no longer exists.
“I wasn’t ready,” Raquelle Clement, 16, said. “I feel like I could probably get comfortable with this place, but I still feel that deep root of wanting to go home.”
For the Clement family — Dora, Joel and their children Raquelle and Luke — Sonora is still just a place to live. They’re taking life day to day. They’re not yet ready to call Sonora home.
“She said she would follow us, but you can tell she wants to go back home. I don’t know if that will happen,” Dora said. “I hope we learn to love it here just like we love Paradise.”
After the Camp Fire destroyed their home on Shay Lane in Paradise, the Clements lived in Live Oak. They moved to a temporary residence in the Phoenix Lake area on Dec. 27. Following a job opportunity at Adventist Health Sonora for Dora, a surgical technician, they began to lay the groundwork for a new life.
“I just don’t have what I used to have,” Luke said.
The rebuilding of their lives is more traumatic for the children, who left behind memories, friendships and familiarity, Joel said.
Raquelle is now a sophomore at Sonora High School, and Luke, 10, is in fifth grade at Curtis Creek Elementary School.
“I had a plan for Paradise, to live there for my life. Now that it's been completely interrupted, I still feel that I need go back and accomplish something that I had in my head. I still want it,” Raquelle said.
Luke wanted a dresser for his new room just like the one he had before: a blue-gray, five-drawer chest, handmade by great-grandfather, a carpenter, Joel said.
When his parents explained to him that the dresser was irreplaceable, Luke broke down in tears in the Sonora Trading Post.“
“It was my old drawer. Now it feels even more important because it was passed down from my dad,” like said.
Joel and Luke were able to pack three boxes, a few duffel bags and backpacks, and their black long-hair cat, Shadow, as the Camp Fire bore down on the three-bedroom home where the family lived for seven years.
Joel watched the fire burn behind the chain link fence in his backyard, less than 30 yards away from the home.
“I was focused on priorities. If you panic you lose,” he said. “At that point, as soon as I saw a fire when we left, I knew it was gone.”
Across town, Dora was terrified for her daughter.
She left her job from Adventist Health Feather River, but she and Joel were blocked from picking up Raquelle from Paradise High School. The chaos — gridlock traffic, torrents of black smoke, walls of flame — was mounting.
“As you’re driving and it’s taking forever, you hear the fire, you see the fire, you think it’s the way you’re going to go,” Dora said. “You wonder how your daughter is going to do without you and who is going to take care of her.”
Raquelle was shuttled by a teacher to a restaurant in Chico, where she and her mother were reunited.
Weeks later, the family sifted through the wreckage. A brick walkway and fireplace were intact, as well as dishware that survived the collapsed roof.
In the cleared imprint of the residence, Joel said the house appeared small, much smaller than it felt when he was inside. There was no promise that the home would be rebuilt, he said. Even in nearby Chico, communities were in crisis.
“If we ever went back, it’s not going to be the same,” he said. “But I still haven’t processed that everything is gone. I think part of me has walled it off because there’s so much I have to deal with first.”
But the family was the opposite of “city people,” he said. They needed to find a place that was familiar, not just in environment, but in community.
When Sonora was offered as an option to Dora, it felt as if the family could “make the best of a bad situation.”
Luke, a soccer and baseball player, said he was happy to be learning again and making friends.
“It’s a new adventure that’s happening to me. This actually helped me experience things like keeping everything more safe.”
Raquelle said the staff and students at Sonora High School were friendly and accommodating, but she missed the lifelong friendships she forged in Paradise.
“I'm not the kind of person that likes change so much at one time. I like change at little paces. The whole moving situation was a big turn, a change, and it was scary. I still feel a longing to go back.”
Joel said the students would stay in school in Sonora until at least the end of the year. He said that after some time, he hoped his daughter could embrace their situation with hope and optimism.
“I can empathize with her. She has to deal with it in her own way,” he said.
Dora started her new job at Adventist Health - Sonora on Thursday.
Jill Kinney, Administrative Director of Marketing and Communications of the Northern California Region for Adventist Health, said Adventist Health sought to reemploy hospital workers displaced by the Camp Fire within the Adventist Health system.
Employees, like Dora, were paid salaries and benefits following the fire. The pay and benefit continuation program lasts until Feb. 5.
While seated outside the hospital, Dora’s eyes welled with tears.
Looking out on the city, she said this place, one day, could be considered their home.
“It feels like Paradise. It feels like family,” she said. “So far, I think we’ve made a good decision. I think we are going to be fine.”