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How One Wildfire Survivor Learned To Heal After Losing Everything

An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 15, 2018, in Paradise, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 15, 2018, in Paradise, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Whether it’s the Bootleg Fire ripping through communities in Oregon or the tragic condo collapse in Miami, many Americans are sheltered one day and homeless the next, their home and possessions destroyed by disasters.

But what do you do after you lose everything?

Dacia Williams walked that road to a sense of normalcy. In 2018, the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history — swept through her town of Magalia, burning her home to the ground. Today, Williams lives in the city of Chico with her two sons, Dominic and Anthony, and teaches counseling and life skills courses at Butte College.

Survivors experience shock after losing a home, Williams says. How long this period lasts depends on the individual, and then a universal sense of feeling overwhelmed kicks in.

“I’ve talked to other survivors that have had sort of the totality of it hits you: ‘Wow, we literally have nowhere to go.’ ” she says. “And you’re in survival mode.”

The single mother says she needed to learn to accept help from other people when it came to money and shelter.

Sometimes, Williams remembers something she loved and lost.

“I remember before thinking, as long as we get out OK, everything else is just stuff,” she says. “But then when you go through it, you realize, wow, some of those things were my kids’ art from preschool that I’ll never get back.

People keep things to remember the past, and losing sentimental items brings fear of forgetting. Grieving a home full of memories is a process, she says.

“You’ll go to put on your favorite pair of jeans and you’ll remember, ‘Oh, wow, yeah, I just don’t have those anymore,’ ” she says. “Or you’ll have your first Christmas and you’ll go to set up a tree and realize all your special ornaments are gone.”

Williams hopes to share what she learned from the Camp Fire to help other people facing disasters. She authored a book about surviving a natural disaster called “The Sound of the Snow Geese.”

“Early on, accept help from others and then be open to redefining your life,” she says. “Don’t compare your life right now to how it was before.”

One strategy Williams utilizes is gratitude. Research has shown practicing gratitude can help people get through difficult times.

Every day, write down simple things you’re grateful for in a journal or on a piece of paper to put in a gratitude jar, she suggests.

“You can start out with easy things like ‘I’m grateful for this cup of coffee’ or ‘I’m grateful that I made it out alive,’ ” she says. Then later, you can reread the things you’re grateful for on a rough day.

Williams also recommends prayer or meditation. Take a walk in nature to quiet your mind and “be in the moment,” she says.

Advice On How To Handle A Disaster

Kathy Grunewald is a disaster coordinator attorney with the Legal Services of North Florida, an area prone to destructive hurricanes. The first thing disaster victims should do is ensure their family members and pets are safe, she says.

Then, she recommends people who had to evacuate their homes return to the residence and check for damages immediately after the disaster.

“And then start to take pictures of your property,” she says. “Take pictures inside your house, outside your house, all around your house and your surrounding land that you live on, but also take pictures before the event.”

Photos of the property before and after the event are needed to apply for assistance or make insurance claims, she says.

Next, start paying attention to the local news for information about disaster recovery centers, where people can register for relief assistance, she says.

People with homeowner’s insurance don’t need a lawyer to file a claim, she says, but folks who are unsatisfied with the response from their insurance company should consult an attorney.

One of the first legal issues people encounter after a disaster is replacing important documents such as Social Security cards or marriage certificates.

Before the disaster, make a copy of important documents to store in a secure place or take with you, Grunewald says.

“But if you haven’t, you will have to replace those documents,” she says. “And for some of those, you may need legal assistance to get them.”

For documents like a driver’s license or Social Security card, people can apply for replacements online at a disaster recovery center, she says.

But people may need to talk to a lawyer about replacing things like birth certificates, deeds to property or information about SNAP benefits. Lawyers with legal aid programs at disaster recovery centers are there to answer questions, she says.

If you need to leave your property before a disaster, expect to be away between three to seven days and prepare an evacuation kit with supplies like clothing and medicine, Grunewald says. And remember to bring your insurance information.

“Make sure you tell friends or family where you’re going so that they can contact you or look for you,” she says, “or you can contact them and let them know that you’re safe.”


Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.