Shelter from the (fire)storm
Vacaville area couple, evacuated because of the LNU Fire, finds care and comfort at a Red Cross shelter
By Marcia Antipa
It was the middle of the night on August 18, and Karen Stickler was sound asleep in the rural Vacaville home she had shared with her husband, Dave, for 30 years. It was a hot, windy night, and the power had gone out earlier that day in their neighborhood. Then, just before midnight, the phone rang.
“My husband said to me, ‘Get up. We have to leave now.’”
That night, the LNU Complex Fire – sparked by an unusual lightning storm – tore through five Northern California counties, destroying almost 1,000 structures and forcing many more evacuations.
Karen, a Vacaville native, says she is no stranger to fires. “As long as I have lived there, which is more or less the better part of 70 years, we have always had fires – bad fires, every summer.”
But until the phone rang in the middle of the night last week, the Sticklers had never had to evacuate. The voice on the line indicated they had fewer than 15 minutes to leave their home.
“We grabbed our dog and our drivers licenses and our cellphones and left, essentially with the clothes on our back. I was in my pajamas and my flip flops,” Karen says, able to laugh now as she reflects on their evacuation.
The Sticklers drove to the home of friends, just across town. But it was a short stay. “Within an hour, the firefighters were knocking on the door there, saying ‘you have to leave NOW.'”
So Karen and Dave drove to a soccer complex in Vacaville. They called around to find a hotel room, but all were booked solid. “We stayed the night in our car with the air conditioner going.”
The next day, they moved again, this time to an American Red Cross Shelter, which volunteers had quickly established at the nearby Ulatis Community Center.
“They had bathrooms and cots and three meals a day, complimentary, and most important to me – air conditioning!” Karen says. “And they could not have been more gracious and kind and generous.”
While in the shelter, the Sticklers heard from a neighbor whose home was spared. The news about their own house was not as good. Karen remembers him saying, “I want you to know that I saw your house go, and it was a fireball about 100 feet tall. He said ‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’”
When Karen and Dave finally returned to their property, they found the skeletons of a few vehicles and a pile of rubble where their house once stood. A group of firefighters from Sonoma County was there, checking on the property. They helped search the wreckage for Karen’s jewelry. They found it, but all the pieces were charred and melted.
“Nevertheless, it was the thought that counts. The fact that they found it! I was just so impressed by that, and they stayed out there for a good hour. They could not have been more humane.”
A week later, the Sticklers have temporarily moved into a local hotel. Their grown children and several friends have offered to take them in. But Karen says she’s not ready to give up on her home in the Vacaville hills.
“We had a beautiful home with an absolutely majestic view,” she says. “We have deer, we have foxes, rabbits, and turkeys. At night we have a magnificent starry sky, and we have privacy.”
One neighbor suggested living in a mobile home on their property for now. Karen says that might be a good short-term choice while she and Dave decide how to rebuild their lives.
Through it all, Karen says she has managed to remain calm, despite the trauma. “There have been a couple times when I’ve teared up, thinking about the things that are gone forever,” she says. “We have the memories, but we have nothing tangible. I haven’t really fallen apart. I think that’s still in front of me.”
For now, the Sticklers are simply grateful – for the Red Cross, for the firefighters, and for their lives.
“Dave and I feel incredibly blessed that we got out with our little dog, unharmed,” she says. “We lost our chickens, and I’m very sad about that. They were like family members, and they were great egg-layers!”
About the author: Marcia Antipa is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.
For more information about the Red Cross response to the LNU Fire (and others) that resulted from the recent lightning storm, please go to our regional blog. You can also find photos in this regional Flickr album.
You too can become a Red Cross volunteer: Please consider getting trained as a Shelter Worker so that you can help us help others during wildfires and other large disasters. For more information and/or to start your application process; just go today to redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html.
For other stories related to this disaster response, please go to this site.