On Thursday, Dana Mack, 26, stood in her in-law’s house, watching her 10-year-old foster daughter Lucy* eat her Thanksgiving meal surrounded by family. She felt grateful but it was also painful — it had been her turn to host Thanksgiving dinner.
The Camp Fire, which burned over 150,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in Butte County, California, had forced the Macks, including her husband Tyler, Lucy and her 21-month-old biological child, to evacuate their Chico home.
Their house at the end of Honey Run Road and all their possessions are now gone, burnt, like so many others, to the ground.
Mack’s family is one of a dozen foster families impacted by the Camp Fire in Butte County, which so far has claimed the lives of 88 people with more than 200 still missing. Youth for Change and Youth and Family Programs, two large foster care service providers in the area, lost 11 foster homes and three transition-age housing units, though other foster homes are damaged and one family is still displaced.
Karen Ely, assistant director of Butte County’s Department of Employment and Social Services, said her agency has contacted all of its foster families but doesn’t yet have an official count of displaced youth.
According to Youth for Change and Youth and Family Programs, about 30 of the county’s 500 foster youth have been displaced by the fire.
The county is still working on connecting youth with their biological parents by continuing to work through its own contact list for children with a reunification plan, Ely said. Family visitation has begun again – two of the county’s three visitation centers went unscathed by the fire, as did the department’s two offices.
Ely said 15 percent of her department’s nearly 600-person staff was affected by the fires.
Fleeing the Flames
The Camp Fire forced thousands of displaced people into shelters, hotels or tents, many, infamously, in a Walmart parking lot. Mack said available housing in the area was quickly bought up and apartment complexes now have lengthy waiting lists for vacancies.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Mack said. “There’s just nothing left.”
With her options already limited, Mack also knew she was restricted by where she could go because of her foster daughter, Lucy. She said some people she knows are leaving Butte County or living with friends or family, but that’s not a simple solution for her family. Living more than two hours from their agency and living with other people, even in an emergency, requires approval, which can take a notoriously long time.
“We’re not a normal family and that’s OK,” Mack said. “We have rules and we have guidelines that we need to stick to.”
But it was important that they stayed a family, Mack said. She spoke about the behavioral and emotional improvements Lucy has made over the past six months, the bond they’ve created and the love they share.
“We didn’t become foster parents to have a kid for a couple days and be over it,” Mack said. “We became foster parents to take care of the kids in the long haul, and not just say, ‘We’re struggling now so we’ll give up.’”
What to do and where to go during disasters aren’t covered in training for foster parents, said Tina Cowan, foster care services program manager for Youth for Change.
“With all the trauma that was happening, they [foster parents] were pretty calm,” Cowan said. “They thought about the important things, which were the kids and the animals.”
Although Cowan said she was impressed with the foster parents from her agency, but she thinks it’s now time for the state to begin adding this kind of training, especially as scientists say that wildfires will become more prevalent thanks to the growing impact of climate change.
A friend of Mack and her family stepped up and offered the family their two-bedroom home and all their furniture. The friend moved back in with their parents.
Mack said Orchard Church, where she is a youth group leader, then helped the family by giving them gift cards, clothing and money to help begin to replace their belongings. And she said another friend’s bible study group bought Lucy a bed, comforter, pillows and toys.
Before the fire, Mack said, she had seven beds, three couches, and her home was “built for kids,” something she hopes to regain at some point. But there are also things Mack knows she and her community will never get back.
One woman in her support group lost all of her child’s baby pictures, which were taken at a time before digital photos were available. The father of Mack’s husband Tyler passed away when Tyler was 11 and the few possessions he had of his father’s are now gone.
Although Mack has never experienced a wildfire before, she knows the feeling of loss all too well. Mack is a former foster youth herself.
“The feeling of losing everything all over again has been hard,” Mack said. “It’s pretty hard.”
Mack said she has always clung to her possessions. Now, Mack looks at Lucy, realizing how difficult it’ll be to once again rebuild to a point where she has her own toys, clothes, bed, space and feels safe.
She knows the fire was out of her control, but it doesn’t make her feel any less guilty for the pain it’s caused.
“Realizing how much the kids lost and how much you feel guilty for that,” Mack said. “It’s sad to see it gone and sad to see your kids left with nothing.”
Processing the Impact
Butte College students are also trying to rebuild.
Sixteen former foster youth work as student assistants on campus through the Guardian Scholar program, which supports current and former foster youth attending the school. When the school was evacuated, those students weren’t able to work, providing a financial blow.
But Vance Edwards, program coordinator of the Guardian Scholar program, said Butte College recently promised to cover the loss of income for those students. Edwards knows that’s not the only help students will need, though. Currently, he is still trying to gather exactly what all the students will need to move forward.
But beyond monetary donations, Mack said, she’s not always sure what she needs, adding that sometimes it just takes a listening ear from a friend to help her figure it out. Which is why, Ely said, stopping for Thanksgiving was so important to many in the community.
“Having family and friends and that great turkey dinner is comforting to folks,” Ely said. “They are just processing through how this is impacting them, so it’s just nice to have a break from that.”
Mack is just trying to stay positive, reflecting on the time they all spent together on Thanksgiving — even if plans were changed.
“The most important thing is your family,” she said.
*Lucy’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
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