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Family: Valley embraced us after losing everything

Being embraced by their new community means more to Brittany Santos and her 7-year-old daughter, Jazelle, than any household item they could have received.

While Santos is appreciative of the many donations from her new neighbors and good Samaritans in the Rogue Valley in recent weeks, the survivor of the devastating Camp fire says the loss of community was the hardest thing to process.

Everything happened so quickly.

Santos, who lived for a half-dozen years in Paradise, California, and her mother, Paradise-native Melissa Ward, are among more than 50,000 people who were displaced by the Nov. 8 fire.

Santos already had been at work for a couple of hours in nearby Chico when PG&E reported a power outage on one of its transmission lines. In a region prone to gale-force winds, it was not uncommon for the utility provider to cut the power during periods of high winds in order to reduce wildfire risk. The power outage was followed by a line fire, which at its peak consumed 80 football fields of land per minute as it headed directly toward Paradise.

The record-setting fire scorched 153,000 acres and left 86 people dead.

“I actually wasn’t with Jazelle when the fire first started,” Santos recalled. “I was at work, which was a 15- to 20-minute drive. I started hearing my co-workers talking about a big black cloud in the sky, so I was a little concerned. I got a message from my daughter’s school at about 7:50 a.m., before school started. It said, ‘Come get your kids. We’re closed. There’s a fire.’”

Santos headed home to help her mother and daughter collect basic belongings and prepare for temporary displacement, expecting they would be able to eventually return. Ward said she and her granddaughter were “playing it safe” by planning to evacuate.

“When I picked her up from school, it looked like it might be OK — like it was something the firefighters would be able to come put out. But then it got worse pretty quickly,” Ward said.

No stranger to fire evacuations, Ward was familiar with the city’s street layout, mostly unpaved roads and complex topography. At one point, she and her granddaughter were surrounded by flames in a traffic jam.

They relied for a while on temporary accommodations after learning that Santos and both of her parents had lost their homes, then Santos and her mother looked to Southern Oregon.

“My mom had already visited the Rogue Valley last summer and really loved the area,” Santos said.

“We knew we wanted to move,” added Ward. “We just wanted to do it on our own terms.”

After relocating, Santos and Ward said they slowly began to remember things they had lost — such as a sewing machine and towels.

The hardest loss, however, was the sense of belonging somewhere and seeing familiar faces at grocery stores, restaurants and local businesses.

“Loss of community, I think, is what affects me the most,” said Santos.

Within a day of getting to Medford, donations began to trickle in. Ashley Furniture donated beds and other furniture. Random community members offered up household items. Debbie Saxbury, an Ashley Furniture employee and administrator for the Central Point “What’s Happening” Facebook page, coordinated art supplies, soccer equipment and a slew of toys from local people.

Julie Gillis, general manager for Ashley Furniture in Medford, said the fire in Paradise affected the entire West Coast.

“My aunt lost everything down there from the fire,” she said. “She had lost her husband two weeks earlier. (Ashley’s) owner, his wife is from there, so it hit our Ashley family pretty hard.”

Gillis said Ashley Furniture stores had donated 25 mattresses to Salvation Army coordinators for Camp fire victims and didn’t hesitate to help the newly relocated family.

Sitting in a freshly furnished room with her daughter, Santos said it was touching to be so readily embraced by her family’s new hometown.

“There are a lot of things you don’t think about, like people you’d see daily at the gym or the corner market store, your postman, even neighbors you might not have talked to very often but you were used to seeing,” she said.

“When your entire town just burns down, you have no way of going back home again. It’s just a huge loss of community that was the most devastating. It was pretty amazing to have our new community step in to do so much for our family. We just never could have imagined.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Buffy Pollock / for the Mail TribuneBrittany Santos and her 7-year-old daughter Jazelle moved to the Rogue Valley after losing their homes in Paradise, Calif., to the Camp fire.