Advice From One Wildfire Survivor to Another

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Mel McMurrin and Deb Helleren lost their home to the Valley Fire. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

As the survivors of the North Bay fires begin to rebuild their lives, here's advice -- both the practical and emotional -- from Californians who have been there.


ou are in shock, overwhelmed, wondering whose clothes you are wearing, focusing on random things that may or not be relevant. This is normal. This is a heartbreaking experience. But you will meet wonderful friends and neighbors, strangers who make small and large impacts. Resilient community spirit. It is a journey I wouldn't wish on anyone, but there will be moments of such encouragement, love and hope along the way. We call ourselves Survivors not Victims.

Terri Stewart Hackler, Valley Fire survivor


Please don't expect to have that feeling of home, know it will be a different feeling. Make sure you give yourself time to grieve. Even over your "things." Most say "they are just things" but to us they were our things, our life possessions. There will be times you grab for something or go to walk a certain way and quickly realize that's not reality anymore.

Jill Laine Vierra, Valley Fire survivor


The best way to get over something like this is to try to forget it as much as possible. I have a certain amnesia for what I did the following year. I think the only way you can put some of this behind you, particularly if you lost a family member, is to forget. When people want to talk to you about the fire who didn't go through it themselves, don't feel compelled to talk about it. Just say 'I really can't talk about it.'

Randolph Langenbach, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

Jill Laine Vierra
"I love my new home but stepping outside is not the same. Please don't expect to have that same feeling of home. Know it will be a different feeling," says Jill Laine Vierra, pictured here with her daughters. (Courtesy of Jill Laine Vierra.)

Currently, sometimes out of nowhere, a thought enters my mind of a possession I lost. At least now, when this happens, I don't cry. I acknowledge, 'It's gone.' Even though two tears have passed, I have to remind myself to move forward. Starting over in my mid-60s hasn't been easy. My motto is ... the fire took everything, but it gave me a new life that I never dreamed of living.

Linda Melendez Crayne, Valley Fire survivor

There's no such thing as being too "grown up" to throw a fit on this stupid fire. If you want to talk about your terror, fear, confusion or pain -- talk about it. If you don't, that's your own way of dealing with it, and that's fine, too. Everyone deserves to handle this however they wish. Trust yourself to be yourself, not what you or others think you should be.

Linda Grisham Karp, Valley Fire survivor

Be present to your own grief and suffering, but try not to become lost in it. I spent a lot of time meditating on the plight of other homeless people around the world and through the ages, and I think this helped me maintain a more balanced perspective.

Karl E. Parker, Valley Fire survivor

Moving Forward

Constantly ask yourself, "what's the opportunity here?" How can I grow through this? How can I use this experience to benefit others?

Karl E. Parker, Valley Fire survivor

Make art. Lots of it. Do things that bring you pleasure. Get a massage and acupuncture. Say yes when people offer you help. Let people know you would love it if they invited you to dinner at their home!

Lisa Kaplan, Valley Fire survivor

One of the stories that has always helped me is that the day before my house caught on fire, I was going to stay home and clean my house, and decided to go have fun instead. So it always gave me a slight satisfaction that I didn't stay home cleaning my house all day before it burned. So choosing fun may be the best choice sometimes.

Allison Murphy, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

I used to have this thing which I call the "four-day week." I'd say for the first six months after the fire, I could make it through Thursday. I could focus. I could get it together. I could get things done. But with the accumulation of complexity, burden and troubles, by Thursday afternoon, I wanted to get in bed and not get out. I started actually taking Fridays off, and just saying 'I can do four days. I can't do five.' So pace yourself.

Frederick Hertz, Oakland Hills Fire survivor


Other fire victims are usually great ears. Keep telling your story and listening to the stories of others. Just the blabbing is a good part of the healing.

Mel McMurrin, Valley Fire survivor

The first question is who is your support team? Historically I've always been the family caretaker and the family counselor. I had to realize that I was the one in need now, and so I had to learn a lot of different emotional skills for getting help. It's a very difficult situation, because some people come through, and others don't. And there will be disappointment in who doesn't come through for you.

Frederick Hertz, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

Linda Karp
"Yes, you have a lot to deal with but first: deal with yourself. Grieve, cry, scream, curse, sob uncontrollably," says Linda Grisham Karp, pictured here with her grandson. (Courtesy of Linda Karp)

Find a friend who will let you talk about it and not be frightened by your telling of it. That friend might be a life-long friend, a counselor or pastor. Sometimes it's someone you just met, and they want to hear your experience. Often, loved ones are tired of hearing about it or seeing your tears because they wish it had never happened. But it did. And it happened to you.

Linda Grisham Karp, Valley Fire survivor

Fire forces you into a job you never applied for and you may not be talented for it. Suddenly you're in the business of designing a house, or figuring out a utility connection or deciding how to deal with your tax returns. For a lot of people, these are not their skills, which means they need to find colleagues, neighbors, friends or professionals to hire.

Frederick Hertz, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

People were generous. Our house today is largely filled with things that friends gave us. People have an old antique and they don't use it, and they give it to a friend who lost everything -- it takes a special place in the house. It's not just going to the store and buying something new. It's got somebody's name attached.

Randolph Langenbach, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

Terri Stewart Hackler
"I recommend taking whatever is offered whether you think you need it or not. When we finally got a chance to breathe and take stock, we were easily able to find another fire family eager to take what we didn’t need," says Terri Stewart Hackler, who survived the Valley Fire. (Courtesy of Terri Stewart Hackler)

Survivor's Guilt

I know all the attention will be on those who lost everything, and it should be. But people who don't suffer the loss of their home will still suffer guilt, PTSD, alienation, the loss of their neighbors, their neighborhood, their vistas and parks. These are still losses and just as valid even if they are not as tragic.

Terri Stewart Hackler, Valley Fire survivor


As an uninsured renter, I believe having our landlord meet at the site and be in contact with our FEMA person helped us to get funds quickly. As a renter, ask your landlord if they would be willing to stay involved with your FEMA rep to vouch for your lease, etc.

Jocelyn Hoey, Valley Fire survivor


My sister set up a donation page for us the day after the fire. It was a blessing when we were overwhelmed with people asking what we needed but we didn't know yet. I know it will feel awkward, but ask anyone you know on Facebook to share the link. Ours was a lifesaver for meeting immediate needs.

Terri Stewart Hackler, Valley Fire survivor

They may set up one or more resource centers. Someone will need to check regularly, in person, to see what is being offered. We got things such as Visa gift cards from various charitable groups that were set up for a few days here and there ... and if we hadn’t checked frequently we would’ve missed some.

Terri Stewart Hackler, Valley Fire survivor

Jocelyn Hoey was an uninsured renter at the time of the Valley Fire and says the landlord's involvement with FEMA is key. (Courtesy of Jocelyn Hoey.)


You want to ask for a “complete and certified copy of my homeowner’s insurance policy, including all declarations, endorsements, riders and/or changes to the policy which would affect coverage at the time of the loss.” United Policyholders has a ton of useful information and they are on your side. Remember that your insurance company is the adversary in this. They may be all friendly and helpful, but they are not your friend.

Terri Stewart Hackler, Valley Fire survivor

You will remember more things lost [from inside your house] over time. Keep a spreadsheet and reference links to the same or similar items. Never feel guilty when making your list of contents. You lost everything and have been paying for years. You will never remember everything, so be nice to yourself and think large rather than small. Check Google Maps and any drawings or photos you might have. You will forget details and need cues and reminders.

Lisa Kaplan, Valley Fire survivor

Read "Delay, Deny, Defend," by Jay M. Feinman. Arm yourself with knowledge.

Nelda Street, Valley Fire survivor

Don't sign with a public adjuster until you've spoken with several of their past clients. Unfortunately, in California, you only have three days to rescind a public adjuster contract, and it's impossible to assess a public adjuster's performance in three days' time. Some public adjusters just go for the low-hanging fruit, rather than abide by any fiduciary duty to advocate for you.

Nelda Street, Valley Fire survivor

Temporary Housing and Rebuilding

Try to procure your own rental housing if you can. Don't be afraid of a yearlong lease, as it will take you at least that long to settle your claim fairly. Don't use your insurance company's housing vendor. They are making money off you, out of a part of your insurance benefits fund called either "loss-of-use" or "ALE" (additional living expenses). Get cash up front from that fund if you can.

Nelda Street, Valley Fire survivor

People get very wrapped up in wanting to make decisions, and do the right thing. But often times you don't have enough information yet to know what to do. Do you buy? Do you build? We went through the whole planning process of rebuilding and ... when we finally went back to the site of the house, we both fell apart and immediately said 'I don't want to live there. There's too much pain there.' Within an hour we decided we wanted to buy a house somewhere else. That decision was absolutely the right decision for us. Had you asked me the day before, I wouldn't have known that was my decision. Sometimes you just have to say, "I can't decide this week. I'll decide next week."

Frederick Hertz, Oakland Hills Fire survivor

Staying Organized

Get a small notebook and keep it with you at all times to write down important info, names, ideas, reminders. Two things afflicted me, and I think many in the aftermath of a disaster: stress-induced cognitive impairment/amnesia and information overload. For a while, I thought I was losing it. The notebook really helped. At least, until my wife accidentally ran it through the washing machine.

Karl E. Parker, Valley Fire survivor


Parenting children in a caring, responsive way while scrambling to survive is a steep mountain to climb. If you find yourself in a position of parenting in the midst of not just evacuation, but also losing your home and rebuilding your life in the wake of a wildfire, your task is even steeper. Perfection is not required, nor is it possible during this time. Instead, consider creating a mental list of three things you can do for your child each day to provide the container of love, stability and “being seen.” Read Carolynn's guide to helping children after a wildfire.

Carolynn Spezza, Valley Fire survivor

Are you a wildfire survivor with advice to share? Leave a comment below.


Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.