About a month ago, I met Andrew Vance, a teacher at a small charter school in Middletown. I was up in Lake County reporting on the cleanup efforts after September’s Valley Fire. In his 30s with light brown hair, Vance smiled a little even as he told me how everything he owned (besides the clothes on his back and his car) burned in the fire.
While the loss of his Buddhist texts, his hiking gear, and, most of all, his home, rocked Vance, he said what struck him almost immediately was the generosity and help that arrived to lift him up.
Organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross offered aid that was crucial for him and other residents to rebuild, but he said it was a different kind of gift that knocked him off his feet.
“My ex-in-laws from like 20 years ago randomly out of the blue sent me a $1,000 check,” he said. “It was like oh my god ... I thought you guys hated me—they’re my ex-in-laws, I never even see them.”
In the months since the third most destructive fire in California’s history burned 1,200 homes, many stories have come out—both of devastation and resilience. Having grown up in Lake County, after the fire I spent long hours on the phone comforting friends and days helping comb through the ashes, looking for anything worth saving. So, I know that both these types of narratives are true. But I also heard this third kind of story told by many I spoke to—stories of unexpected gifts.
"It Hits You More Deeply"
“The smallest act of thoughtfulness and kindness, the tiniest gesture, it hits you more deeply,” my friend Meg McDonnell told me in a recent call. “It matters more; I guess it’s because we need people more at a time like that.”
Of all the homes lost by people I know, Meg's was the one I knew the best and mourned the most. She’s one of those people whose house is—or rather was—truly more than building. Her home was the product of a life full of family treasures, mementos from trips, gifts from friends still here and those who’ve passed on.
She was out of town up in Washington State visiting her sister when it all burned. It was also her birthday.
“We were still in the worst part of reeling from the loss,” she said. She had a birthday celebration planned with friends, many of whom were now as homeless and scattered as she was. So, she told me, laughing, that she did the only thing that made any sense: went shoe shopping online. A few days later the shoes arrived, but they were damaged. So Meg called customer service.
A guy named Sam apologized for the damage and asked her where to send the replacement. Meg gave him her sister’s address in Washington.
“Sam from Zappos said, ‘Well I hope you’re safe from the fires in Washington.’ Cause Washington has had a lot of fire through the summer also.”
Meg told him, well actually my home burned down in the California wild fires, which is why I’m staying with my sister. When Meg got off the phone, she still felt touched by the concern and sympathy in Sam’s voice, and he told her how sorry he was to hear it.
Then, the next day she got a call back from Sam. He told her he’d been thinking of her and that he wanted to give her the shoes from Zappos for free, but also made another offer.
“’If you need anybody to talk to—just to, you know, to talk about what you’re feeling or to vent to process your loss if you just need someone to lend an ear or have a shoulder to cry on, just call up our customer service line, we’re here 24/7 and we really want to be here for you.’ It took me aback,” Meg told me. “It was such a touching offer.”
And, it didn’t end there. A couple of days later—she got a free pair of shoes in the mail along with a card.
“It just really affected me in the most positive way,” Meg said. As she read from the card, her voice broke.
“There has to be about 20 names and little personal messages. It goes on and on. It was so over the top—it was so far beyond any marketing strategy they could have had that (it) still touches me.”
Meg’s told this story a lot in the months since her home burned.
“I’ve had a good laugh with my friends who know exactly what an addicted shoe-aholic I am, that I got my grief counseling for the loss of my treasured home and all the treasured memorabilia and precious things that we had in that home," she said. "I’m getting grief counseling from my shoe store.”
While it’s funny and heartwarming, she said this gesture from people she didn’t even know has done more to give her strength than she ever could have guessed.
“You really do actually get carried forward and start to trust the future again,” she said.
Meg hasn’t been back to Lake County yet, but she says she will eventually return and start to rebuild. She told me she’s waiting until spring when the hills will be a little greener. And there are already people working on that.
A Christmas Tree Project
Kathy Blair lives up in Cobb Mountain where the fire started. Her home survived the fire, but 4 out of 5 of her best girlfriends all lost their homes in the fire.
“I wanted selfishly to have my one good friend come back to the mountain,” Blair said. “She’s concerned about the area being hot in the summer and being so ugly because all the trees are gone. So I decided that I would purchase her a live Christmas tree as her present and then when I told my sister she said, ‘Oh I want to do that!’ And then we kind of started thinking, ‘Why don’t we see how many trees we can get?’ So that’s how it started and it turned into this big huge project, which is awesome.”
The project—inviting people to buy living Christmas trees, then after the holiday, go plant them in Lake County—started small and took off. At the time of writing this, 12 nurseries from Cloverdale to Petaluma have participated.
I recently visited one of these, Harmony Farm Supply, in Sebastopol. Co-owner Leah Taylor walked me around the grounds. The air was crisp and her large outdoor nursery was fairly sparse—bare root blueberry bushes and other hardy trees that can survive the night’s frosts.
“We didn’t really have any idea how it was going to be received,” Taylor said. “The magic and beauty of it is that it’s been so well-received and that was a surprise to us."
She told me a few weeks ago the whole nursery was full of 100 or so live potted trees. She said she’s also gotten calls from people who bought trees at other nurseries, but wanted to donate them to Lake County.
The 1000 or so Christmas trees Blair hopes to get from this project, which will be given to Lake County residents by a lottery, won’t come near to replacing the 7 million trees that burned. But Taylor says maybe it’s about more than that.
“The process of giving is such a gift to yourself because it feels so good to see other people happy and to bring joy to other people,” she said.