By Justin Kern, American Red Cross
Mary Ford said today’s lunch delivered by the American Red Cross to her evacuation hotel room would be a celebratory one.
Her son was alive.
And she was lucky to be able to report back to friends that she was alive, too.
“That’s the best thing that’s happened out of this whole mess,” Ford said, welling up with tears.
When fires swept through her community of Berry Creek, Calif., in early September, Ford received the alarm on her phone to evacuate. This wasn’t like the other warnings in the past weeks or even past years. These were flames scorching straight toward her home.
In the hurry to leave, she grabbed what she could for the next few days, still thinking that she’d be able to return soon to the home she built and powered off-the-grid for the past four decades. She had a new cell phone she was just getting used to and her van had enough gas to get away from the encroaching smoke and heat.
A few days in, it became clear this fire wasn’t like the others, not for Berry Creek or numerous other communities all along the West Coast. Scraps of updates on fire and damage came her way from friends, though no word of her son, also a resident of that same community. For rest and resources, Ford came to a Temporary Evacuation Center and received evacuation lodging at a hotel, like more than 2,000 other people nightly by mid-September through the Red Cross and state agencies in California.
Ford’s move into a hotel was nearly two weeks ago. On Sept. 20, Ford – with wise eyes and a giving voice – remained unsure on the status of her home and property, where she raised her family in “a beautiful place in the woods, in the hills, by a creek but up the highway from everything you need.” With a self-professed “hippie” spirit, Ford lauded Red Cross volunteer Mike Woods for the day’s lunch delivery, macaroni and cheese with ham and a side of fruit. And she proclaimed that it was a joyous meal during an anxious time, as Butte County Sheriff’s deputies had helped her connect with her son for the first time hours prior. Between the Red Cross, first responders, the hotel staff and her neighbors, Ford said she’s felt a stronger spirit of community even as the physical structures of her own neighborhoods remain in doubt.
“Everybody’s really come together,” Ford said. “That’s something I’ve known for a long time but now it’s real to me. … It’s like faith,” she said, later adding, “All of these places, we’re in this as one.”
Mary herself was roaming after the fire. She stayed in a van for the first few days, thinking evacuation orders may be lifted, that the damage may miss her street. Meanwhile, friends were reaching out to try to find “Merry Mary,” as she’s casually known to friends. Mary, dealing with pain from her work as a home healthcare provider, found her way to a Temporary Evacuation Point opened early on in the evacuations in Butte County. From that contact, she was able to resituate into a hotel, one where many of her Berry Creek neighbors were also staying. And once there, Red Crossers were able to connect Mary with those loved ones, unsure of her whereabouts. (Find out more about our Safe & Well reconnection resources here.)
As for where and what is next for Berry Creek, the place she built and made her own, with family and friends since the early 1970s? Ford is buoyed by recent reconnections though she has also received difficult updates. A beloved kitten, Nickelodeon, perished, as did a rooster and chickens. In pictures shared among neighbors from a firefighter who had been into the affected community, Ford can make out a shed that was once her daughter’s playhouse and a pile of items to disposed of in winter. Other than that, from her property, she said: “As far as I know, that’s all that’s down there.”
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