Dan and Rochelle Kelly thought they would only be gone from their Boulder Creek, California, home for a day when they received the reverse 911 call on Aug. 18 advising them to evacuate because of an approaching wildfire.
Living in the mountain town that serves as the gateway to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County, the Kellys have for years had an emergency evacuation plan for the summers, with bags ready to go and a list of the most important items in their home they don’t want to lose if their home were to go up in flames.
They grabbed family photo albums, ancestry documents, irreplaceable paintings, their dog, the tops of their wedding cakes and a gold teapot Rochelle’s great grandparents received for their 50th wedding anniversary. They filled up Dan’s truck and Rochelle’s car as best as they could before hitting the road to avoid getting stuck in evacuation traffic like they had heard about in other fires.
“My advice to people that are evacuating is when you are taking stuff, you need to imagine that your house is going to burn to the ground,” Rochelle, a retired school administrator, told The Christian Post. “We took things that were really important but left some things that were really special but not irreplaceable. We really thought we’d be gone for a day and come back and move back in with our stuff.”
But what happened is the Kellys suffered a similar fate that hundreds of families across Santa Cruz County and thousands of others across the Pacific Northwest have suffered this year as a record wildfire season has seen thousands of fires engulf millions of acres across California, Oregon and Washington in recent months.
Their home, as well as one of their neighbors' homes, burned to the ground with very little left to be salvaged.
In California alone, over 4 million acres have burned and 8,819 structures have been destroyed during the 2020 wildfire season as of Oct. 7, according to the states’ Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In Oregon, over 1 million acres have been burned by nearly 2,000 different fires, nearly double the 10-year average of 557,811 acres. In Washington, hundreds of thousands of acres burned in 2020, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Tom O’Brien, a retired firefighter who served 32 years in Rancho Cucamonga and who is now leading a relief effort for the evangelical humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse in Santa Cruz County, told CP that the CZU Lightning Complex fires in the area began on Aug. 16 when there was dry lightning that came through in the form of a large electrical storm.
By the time fires in Santa Cruz County stopped burning, O’Brien said that about 930 homes were destroyed along with an additional 1,000 other structures, including outbuildings, garages and sheds.
“Everything had been preheated, there was warm weather that preceded it. It just started igniting everything. Mountains were going up in just little spot fires,” he said. “What they began to call these fires as they began to merge and join together, they called them complex fires, meaning a whole series of small fires joining together to create one big fire.
“As fire burns going uphill, it begins to preheat as it goes. It draws in air along the sides of it so it can use that air and has plenty of fuel in the dry sticks and brush. It has plenty of heat as it goes up that hill. It continues to just feed itself on this dry tinder, grass and trees as it runs up. It creates its own wind as it draws in everything nearby and these large plumes of smoke tower up into the air. These dry leaves and embers, some very, very long distances, miles in some cases.”
At the time, O’Brien said there were as many as 88 to 90 other wildfires ongoing caused by dry lightning across the three states.
“This year, it is not very good at all. It is a horrible year and we really haven’t even gotten the wind-driven fires yet,” he said. “Everybody needs to be on their knees praying to God to assist the firemen and give relief in the form of rain.”
Amid the tragedy and through the power of Christ, however, some have been able to find a sense of hope that had previously been lacking in their lives while others believe God sent them a sign that He has different plans for their lives.
“God does so many amazing things even through the devastation,” Kristin Koning, a Samaritan’s Purse program manager overseeing efforts in Oregon, said. “On any disaster, we see that. Certainly, this one is not an exception. We are seeing God open opportunities not only for people to come and accept Him for the first time but just for believers to be encouraged.”
Leaving their home behind
Leaving their home behind, the Kellys went to stay for a week with friends in the town of Pleasanton, before going on to stay for a week at a friend’s beach rental home in Santa Cruz and then back up to their friend’s place in Pleasanton for another week.
For the last four weeks, they have stayed at a hotel in Santa Cruz.
The day after they left their home, the Kellys were informed by their 37-year-old son, who lived in the area but had not evacuated because his home was not in immediate danger, that their home, which was their son’s childhood home, had burned down.
“He got on his dirtbike — he knew all the mountains and trails — and he came to the house as the fire was going away from the house,” Rochelle said. “He was riding through the fire lines and stuff. He was able to see that it had burned to the ground as well as all the outbuildings. He took pictures for us. Otherwise, like so many people, we would not have known the fate of our house for a month. That would have been just horribly anxiety-ridden.”
Many evacuees have been forced to wait for weeks to find out the fate of their homes because they have had to wait for authorities to tell them when it's safe to return to the area.
As for the Kellys’ 20-acre property in Boulder Creek, different fires were coming from two directions that converged in the mountains, heading toward Boulder Creek and other small towns in the San Lorenzo Valley.
The Kellys were able to return to their property after about four weeks on Sept. 13.
When they returned, they said they were overwhelmed by the amount of work they would have to do just to sift through the ash to see if there was anything in the home that could be salvaged.
Picking up the pieces
As they left their burned-down property on the first day of their return, Dan said he and his wife encountered a husband-and-wife couple in a pick-up truck who stopped them to ask, “Did you folks lose your house?”
Those people turned out to be O’Brien and his wife. The O’Briens arrived in Santa Cruz County on Sept. 10 to assess the area to see how Samaritan's Purse, a North Carolina-based organization run by Franklin Graham that helps victims of disasters all over the world, can help.
The Kellys recalled the couple offering to send a team of volunteers to help them sift through the ash to find any valuables that survived the fire.
“They were just going up and down, just checking people’s houses, seeing what they can do. They gave us some information and a flyer and all that,” Dan said. “That was it.”
Just a few days later, a team of 10 or more Samaritan’s Purse volunteers arrived at their property.
“When we met them at the driveway there and they told us what they were about and what they could do for us, we were so relieved because we had just been at the site of our burned-out house and it was so overwhelming to us to have to get in there and sift through all that debris to look for anything that might have survived,” Rochelle recalled. “It was very difficult to even walk in the debris because it was a tangled mess of glass and nails [and screws]. When they told us what they did, we said, ‘Thank God!’ We didn’t think we would be able to do it ourselves.”
O’Brien said that the team had to wait a few days for things to cool down before they could go to work. The charity had to get approval from the appropriate government agencies as well.
“We tied in with some other volunteer organizations working in this area and had a pastors’ conference and within just a few days after that, we got ourselves up and working to assist these homeowners in their time of need,” he said.
Samaritan's Purse’s efforts in Santa Cruz, which consists of three different teams of about 10 or more volunteers, are being headquartered at Felton Bible Church, just north of the town of Santa Cruz.
Out-of-town volunteers who travel to Santa Cruz to help residents in need and plan to stay for three days or more are given a place to sleep at Mount Hermon, a Christian camp near Felton. O’Brien said some volunteers have traveled from as far as Oklahoma and Ohio to aid those in Santa Cruz.
Samaritan’s Purse has taken dozens of work orders in Santa Cruz County since Sept. 14.
“Each order is a little bit different," the retired firefighter said. "Some folks are looking for maybe a dozen items or so. Other owners just want one or two items. The timeline, we try to be very flexible to give it our best effort to try to salvage those items that are important to that homeowner.”
Volunteers from Samaritan's Purse — wearing Tyvek suits, goggles, gloves and N-95 masks — worked on the Kellys’ property for over two days.
On the first day, Dan said, about 10 volunteers showed up. In the following two days, he said anywhere between 10 to 14 volunteers showed up to work on his home.
Dan was there for most of the time that the volunteers were there.
“It was pretty neat because they would be sifting through and all of sudden they would find something,” he explained. “They didn’t even want me in the rubble. They had the personal equipment on. They had everything there. They just wanted me to sit down. I brought in a pop-up tent, a table and some water to wash things off and some rags and stuff like that. As they would find it, they would bring it over to me.”
According to Rochelle, there wasn’t much that survived the fire except for a few notable items.
One thing that survived the fire was an American flag hanging from a flagpole on their side deck that was discovered by the fire department.
Dan, a former scuba diving instructor-turned-business owner from Long Island, New York, said the fire department folded the flag military-style and placed it inside his damaged Mercedes-Benz convertible for him to find.
Another thing that survived the fire was a porcelain figurine of Jesus Christ that Dan’s mother gave as a gift to Rochelle.
“They are sifting through an area that we had asked them to sift through. When they brought me things, they were usually in pieces,” he explained. “Then all of a sudden, everybody was just so excited. It was a white porcelain bust of Jesus about 6 inches tall. It survived through everything with no cracks, no dirt on it, nothing. It just survived.”
The figurine was originally located in an upstairs bedroom, meaning that in addition to exposure to heat and fire, it also fell from the upper floor down to the bottom.
“It is perfectly clean and perfectly whole,” Rochelle explained. “It was totally amazing, Everything else that was glass or porcelain was in bits and pieces but not Jesus.”
“Then they found baby Jesus with Mary and one of the oxen from my mom’s nativity set that we put out every year. It’s pretty cool. Also four of [my mom’s] little porcelain angels that we would set out every year next to the nativity, those came out. They need to be cleared up but four of them came out whole.”
The Kellys, who are active members of an Episcopalian church, said they believe God might've been trying to speak to them through the survival of the Jesus figurine. Dan said they believe it was God saying that He has “different plans for us.”
“The message was so clear,” Rochelle agreed. “We have the bust of Jesus, wherever we go. He is sitting right here on our nightstand in our hotel room right now. It is definitely a message of hope.”
While many people displaced from the wildfire are like the Kellys and have stayed with friends and family, others have received vouchers to stay in hotels via the American Red Cross since large shelters in some areas are not available during the coronavirus pandemic.