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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ariane Lange

California wildfire survivors are showing up to help others evacuate Mosquito fire

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Warren Thompson understands fear. He never finished his morning coffee on that windy fall day four years ago because a branch — on fire — blew over his head when he stepped outside, and he knew the wildfire was coming. He ran.

Thompson, now 71, understands the waiting, the days when you have no toothbrush, no soap, no nothing, and you don’t know if everything you own has turned to ash. The hours when you don’t know if the people you love made it out alive.

And because he understands all that, he was sorting a pile of donated jeans on a folding table in a parking lot about 19 miles from his new home in Sacramento. Because this Camp Fire survivor wanted to be a small part of helping Mosquito fire evacuees before they return to whatever awaits them in the Sierra foothills.

“I know the feeling: You have nothing,” Thompson said. “When you don’t have anything, everything matters.”

Thompson showed up to volunteer at the donation booth on Sept. 12, at the urging of his brother, Ken, another Camp fire survivor. Many of the people in the lot had been ordered to evacuate Foresthill on Sept. 8, and on Thursday, Thompson presided over the piles in Parking Lot B at Sierra College in Rocklin while residents of the makeshift shelter stopped by to take the basics that they left behind.

Shampoo. Shirts. Tampons. Blankets. Diapers. When you run from a wildfire, you might forget these things — in 2018, when he fled the fast-moving Camp Fire swept into town by the wind, Thompson took only the clothes on his back and his green-eyed tuxedo cat, Cinder.

And Derek Jones, “the mayor of Lot B,” can relate to some of Thompson’s story: When he got the evacuation notice and left his home, he piled his two small dogs, their blankets, their kennel, food and leashes into a borrowed car and, he said, unthinkingly left everything else. He was trying to get out of Foresthill as quickly as possible, before the roads got crowded.

As of Friday morning, the fire that started Sept. 6 has burned nearly 70,000 acres in El Dorado and Placer counties. Jones and his neighbors can look northeast of Lot B and see the smoke.

After evacuation orders were issued, this shelter with the adjacent parking lot was set up near the college bookstore, and Jones and many of his friends moved in. The people who fled the Mosquito Fire could sleep inside at the Red Cross temporary shelter in a campus building.

However, around 50 people have chosen to stay outside in Lot B, sleeping in their campers or their cars or, like Jones, on air mattresses on the asphalt. They like to be with their pets, and near all the things they carried with them. Many of these evacuees are neighbors from the Hillcrest Mobile Home Park — still standing, at least for now — and they also prefer the camaraderie of sleeping in the parking lot.

And then there are people like Timothy Huerta, who opted to rent a room in nearby Newcastle. Still, the parking lot has a pull. He comes by every day with his friend, Katie McGee, mostly for the sense of community.

In the lot, he finds the same sense of neighborliness he had back in the Hillcrest park, where he tossed the keys to his Ford Explorer to Jones before evacuating in his other car with his dog, a tiny Yorkie named Cootie. Now, in Rocklin, he’s keeping up a sense of normality.

“As soon as I get up, I come over here,” Huerta said, leaning against his black muscle car. “This is where all my friends and neighbors are.”

McGee is sleeping at her sister’s house in Newcastle, but she spends much of her day in the parking lot, too, along with her unflappable bearded dragon, Dora, who sits in McGee’s arms and sometimes tromps around on the ground. She said the community is processing trauma together; sometimes, she just lets people cry with her. And in his own way, Jones is making the rounds, too: bringing meals to people whose disabilities make it difficult to leave their vehicles and checking that they have gas and ice and, if they want them, cigarettes. It’s the same role he plays back at home, Jones and Huerta said, although this time, there’s a greater sense of urgency.

“We’re going all the way,” Jones said, “to make sure they’re just as comfortable here as they were at home.”

People drove into the lot to drop off donations on and off all morning, and many of them asked Jones what else they should bring next time (mostly blankets and sweatshirts, he said, because it’s starting to get cold. And pillows would be nice). Lynda Hogge, a retired EMT from Woodland, and her neighbor Rebecca Weinhardt rolled up in a silver minivan and pulled out trash bags full of clothes; a 48-pack of toilet paper; cases of bottled water; food; a Step-to-Play piano mat.

“From being a child to adulthood, I’ve survived four house fires,” Hogge said. “It’s hard, because once you do get to go back, you’re going back to something very devastating. Very devastating. … You lose the memories, everything — everything’s torn away. The sense of loss is unimaginable. It really is, and my heart goes out to all these people.”

But, she said, surviving is the important part. “My sons are alive and well,” she said, “and new memories can be made.”

Thompson said he was telling the Mosquito fire evacuees something similar. He still tenses up when he hears a siren; he thinks about how he talked to his cat and described the buildings that were on fire around him as he spent hours trying to drive out of town. When he sees smoke in the air, he sometimes remembers the moments he thought he was going to die.

“It’s something that’s never gonna go away,” he said. He and his brother both decided to volunteer at the parking lot shelter with the nonprofit Life from the Ashes — an organization founded after the Camp fire — to “try to help as much as possible.”

And while he’s helping people find clean clothes or a can of food, he tells them in his quiet voice what he went through, that his white house in Paradise was reduced to a few pieces of metal and two putter heads. He said that “people definitely appreciate you sharing the story.” Because when they come through with a hazy look in their eyes and they’re not sure whether their house is gone, he can tell them that he lost everything. He can tell them the thing he wishes he’d known back then: “If they have to have to start over, it’s possible.”

And they have to believe him, because here he is.


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