The Paradise fire hit close to home at California Solar.
Flames lashed 30-feet-high in the backfield of their Paradise home as Diana and Bill Toci rushed to pack their cars. They fled the Camp Fire with a small filing cabinet, a few paintings, some photos and, most importantly, family that included Diana’s father and sister, Oscar and Janet Deen.
They would arrive safely in Nevada City, with the help of Diana’s son, Lars Ortegren, and the kindness and generosity of a community.
On the morning of the fire, though, it was about escape. It was about running for their lives.
Diana and Bill left their home and headed first in the direction of Oscar, who was in a care home about a mile away. He was dressed with a bag packed, and once Diana had him in the car, she drove, frantically, yet cautiously out of town.
“I was driving and holding my dad’s wrist,” she said. “At one point he said, ‘Honey, you can let go of my hand now. You need that other hand for the steering wheel.’ For a minute there, I was a 16-year-old girl again. I was trying to sing to calm down. I was terrified.”
It was 8:30 in the morning “but black as black can be,” Diana said. “Except for the flames.”
Generosity and gratitude
Out of harm ’s way, and with a safe haven at the Northern Queen Inn, the Tocis and Deens were embraced by family and community.
“When I heard about how fast the fire was growing, and she was looking for a hotel room, I quickly started calling around,” Lars said.
“Lars has been splendid from the very beginning by rushing to get three rooms,” Diana said.
That included a room for Janet and her dog and cat.
Lars also put out the call on Facebook for a temporary place for his family to live. That call was overwhelmingly answered.
“I’m someone who grew up in Nevada County,” Lars said. “Most people (who responded) weren’t even people that I knew at all. There were people offering fully furnished houses.”
The hardship of loss was felt simultaneously with deep gratefulness.
“When you’re surrounded by family and friends, it dulls the pain,” Diana said. “It makes it seem not quite so raw.”
“This is an amazing city with generous strangers,” Lars said. “Lines that normally divide us, whether it’s income, race or political views, those lines were vaporized in this fire. There is a lot of human to human support.”
With so many generous people giving for the Camp Fire survivors, Cal Solar has become a mail and donation hub, uniting those who want to help.
“It’s amazing how quickly my inbox was full and my phone was ringing off the hook with people offering support in one way or another,” Lars said. “We live in a community that is really full of that community spirit. If this city was closer to Paradise, I would bet that a lot less people would be living in that Kmart parking lot.”
It all speaks to community spirit. To human spirit.
And back on that day of escape, something else remarkable happened.
As cars lined up, frightened and steering slowly towards safety, they were courteous.
“People were letting everybody in from the side streets, waiting patiently,” Diana said. “One in, then another. There was no police or fire department presence, so we were taking turns during the fire. It was a long wait until we turned on the main street. That really shows everybody’s humanity. Because everybody was panicked … everybody.”
Oscar is also doing well in a new home in Carson City.
“He has a new lift chair, new walker and new wardrobe,” Diana said. “He is in a place near my sister Elaine and brother Robert. He is loving the food and loving the company.”
Diana, Bill and Janet are settled in, too.
“If you came to visit our rental, which in itself was a miracle to get, you would find that it’s totally furnished by friends and strangers,” Diana said. “And it doesn’t end there. Diego’s offered us free meals, the thrift shop gave 50 percent off … You do feel just lost trying to imagine where to start. We needed everything,” Diana said. “But then a U-Haul pulled up full of donations…. Talk about being overwhelmed with people’s goodness. It really helps you understand that we are all connected, one organism, humanity rises up.”
Many still need help
The Camp Fire is being dubbed the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California and U.S. history, with 86 lives lost and thousands of homes destroyed.
Many who lost their homes and loved ones are still in need of help.
Donations for the Camp Fire survivors can be taken to California Solar Electric Company at 149 E. Main Street in Grass Valley or call the office at (530) 274-3671. With a large accumulation of clothing contributions, cash or gift cards are preferable at this time.