Brandman in the Community

Carr fire brings devastating loss for Ed.D. student; October fire survivor offers lessons learned

Carr Fire damage

This is the devastation Alyson Kohl faced when returning to her home. Among the important things lost: research for her dissertation, years of resources for courses she teaches. Photo courtesy of Alyson Kohl

Doctoral candidate and adjunct faculty member Alyson Kohl was just starting to feel settled. After spending much of her adult life taking care of others, facing personal traumas and challenges finishing her dissertation, her new little home near Redding seemed like a dream come true.

That dream became a nightmare when the Carr fire, which is still burning, leaped the Sacramento River, turned into a firestorm and destroyed the home she was renting and her neighborhood.

“I’ve got nothing,” she said, referring to what remains after she fled her home on July 26, three days after the fire started at Whiskeytown Lake. To date, the fire, which is 88 percent contained, has destroyed 1,077 residences and burned more than 220,000 acres. 

Seventeen fires are burning from one end of California to another, many near places were Brandman students, faculty and staff live or work.

Kohl’s experience is among the most devasting. The fire has destroyed not just her possessions but also her peace of mind. Sleep is elusive, she said. “I keep remembering things I used to have.”

She also remembers the terror of fire. “There was really no notification for our neighborhood, it just happened really fast. When it jumped the river, it just took off. You could hear it coming like a big old roar, like a freight train. I can hear and see it in my mind,” she said this week.

Ring
The diamond engagement ring salvaged from the fire. Photo courtesy of Alyson Kohl.

Friends, including those from Brandman such as her dissertation chair Pat Ainsworth and Associate Dean of the School of Education, have offered emotional support. Many are contributing to a Go Fund Me page to help her defray some expenses. Her biggest concern is finding another place to live. Friends have given her shelter. “I couched surf in my 20s. It’s very strange to be doing it again in my 50s.”

Her search for housing is complicated by the thousand other families looking for someplace to stay in the Redding area. “The minute you see a rental, it’s gone,” she said.

She’s trying to recover her equilibrium. Small things help. A group from a Redding church helped her sift through the ashes of her home, finding the diamond engagement ring her mother had left and that she planned to give her daughter. Her dissertation, while not the latest version, was stored in the cloud, so she knows when she’s able, she can work on it again.

Carr FireShe’s taking time away from her job in social services with the county of Shasta – where she’s responsible for seven mental and social service programs – because she finds it impossible to function fully. Clothing donations and gift cards from charities are helping her to feel “human again.”

The fire is teaching her to accept help. “Just knowing people care makes all the difference in the world. I never realized just how much that matters. I’m learning the importance of letting people be supportive,” she said.

She tries to think of it as an opportunity, a chance to possibly take her life in a new direction, like “a phoenix rising from the ashes.” 

Lessons learned in October

Ed.D. cohort mentor and adjunct faculty member Timothy McCarty knows what Kohl is going through. His home was in danger during the October 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed homes and lives in Santa Rosa and elsewhere in Sonoma County.

Tubbs Fire
The Tubbs fire in October damaged multiple communities in Sonoma County. Photo courtesy of Timothy McCarty.

Although his home was damaged but not destroyed, most of the homes in his north Santa Rosa neighborhood were burnt to ashes. Ten months after the fire began, he realizes many will not be returning. 

Like Kohl, McCarty had little time to flee when the fire struck. Initial reports said it was 12 miles away, but it got to his area in four hours. “They estimated that it was traveling a football field a second. I don’t know any people who can run across a football field in a second,” he said. 

That experience makes it easy for him to offer suggestions for anyone else facing fire danger.

  • Make sure your car or vehicle has gas – don’t run it to empty. “Make sure you have enough gas to get you out of the area.”
  • Read your insurance policy, now. “Many of our neighbors lost hundreds of thousands, even millions because they were underinsured.”
  • Make sure your insurance reflects your property’s current value. “We know too many of our neighbors are selling because they just didn’t have the money to rebuild.”
  • Take pictures of every room in your house and make sure they’re stored in the cloud or off-site.  “Can you remember what’s in every room?” That includes taking pictures of artwork hanging on walls and receipts, if possible.
  • Keep a grab bag ready, in case you have a half-hour or less to vacate. “Passports, checkbook, computer codes. You may not have a computer but you still have to function.”
  • A pre-packed bag for clothes. “We walked out in T-shirts and casual shoes. And those were all the clothes we had for weeks.”
  • Know how to open your garage door if you don’t have electricity. “Ours was heavy wood and impossible for one person to hold open and drive the car out.”
  • Close your windows. McCarty said he fortuitously closed the last window as they were leaving. It turned out to be in the corner of the house where the fire hit. He thinks if it had been open, the entire house would have been destroyed. His home was saved because of clay tile roofs and other precautions. Even so, he estimates thousands of dollars of smoke damage.
  • Pay attention to the winds. “When those dry, low humidity winds hit, that’s when you want to go around your house and make sure it’s as fireproof as possible.”

One final piece of advice: Be professional but persistent about getting what is due from insurance companies. “You really have to advocate and fight hard.”

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