The faces of wildfires: Enduring tragedy, with faith and hope they pushed forward to rebuild

After the Avila family lost everything, they focus now on helping other families

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in north Auburn. Then life changed, suddenly and forever, for the Avila family and hundreds of their neighbors, as the 49er fire destroyed their neighborhood on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, 2009.

As 13-year-old Jakob Avila was getting into his uniform for his first football game, he looked out the window. “The sky looked different – a burnt orange color,” he recalls eight years later. “Then my dad looked outside and saw smoke and fire in the field across from our house.”

“Call your mother and sister. I’ll try to wet down the house,” Daniel told his son. Lisa and their daughter Angie were only two miles away at Lisa’s parents’ house. They could get home quickly – no need to panic, Daniel thought. He had no idea how quickly wildfire can spread.

“I changed out of my football gear real quick,” Jakob says. “I called my mom, ‘You’ve got to get over here the field is on fire.’ The smoke and flames were getting a lot closer. As I was talking to her the line cut off. The fire was coming very fast.”

“No parent wants to hear her kid screaming over the phone,” Lisa says. “I was shocked. It was his first football game. We were going to have a big dinner at my parents’ house after the game.” Now wildfire was destroying their plans. Lisa and Angie jumped in their car and headed home.

The fire wouldn’t let Daniel and Jakob wait for them. A garden hose was no match for the fast-moving blaze. They grabbed their two dogs and joined their neighbors driving past fire trucks to safety.

Lisa and Angie were still on the way, unaware of the fury of the fire. “We could already see the smoke when we got in the car,” Lisa says. “When I got near the house, the fire trucks were there. A firefighter said, ‘You can’t go up there, ma’am.’ It was super smoky. We could hardly see anything. I said, ‘My son and my husband are at my house I have to help them.’ I just drove past him.”

Mother and daughter ran into the empty house. “Angie grabbed her backpack – she was just starting the new school year.” Lisa says. “I got the family safety box out of our closet – our insurance policy, the kids’ birth certificates, our marriage certificate. Then I turned around and the fire was in our backyard. I grabbed that box. We drove off with our car covered in retardant from the planes spraying from above. All I could see were homes engulfed in flames and saying, ‘My home is next.’” Minutes later, fire roared through their home, one of 64 residences destroyed that afternoon.

“Everything we had was gone,” Lisa says. “We just had the clothes on our backs. I didn’t know how we would be able to handle this. ‘Why us?’ The question went through my mind but we reached out to Father Mike Carroll (now retired) at our parish, St. Teresa of Avila, and he put some things in our heads: ‘You have your family. That’s all that matters. Everything else is material.’ He was absolutely right. We have our family.”

Father Mike was right, Daniel says: “Faith has a lot to do with it, keeping me strong. Having the family. Nobody got hurt.” Still, he has one lingering regret – that he had not done enough to save his son’s beloved pet leopard gecko. “I grabbed the dogs,” he says. “It hurt me that the leopard gecko had to stay behind. That really bothered me for a long time.”

The fire taught Jakob an invaluable lesson about human priorities. “We waste a lot of time watching TV, but when we had to evacuate in the face of fire, we didn’t think of grabbing the TV. We took what was most important to us –  family, pets, baptismal records. Other things are replaceable.”

“At first, a sense of disbelief hit me,” Jakob says. But he quickly learned, “you are at such a low place – only the clothes on our backs, staying at our aunt and uncle’s house. You have only one way to go – up. I had only one contact lens, but the next day I was at the optometrist and getting new contacts. You don’t have a house, but eventually we will.”

“You have to be optimistic,” Jakob adds. “The Lord’s in the process of healing. You question it sometimes but you have to have faith.”

Has the devastation of the fire affected the faith of Lisa, a longtime religious education teacher at St. Teresa of Avila? She pauses, then says firmly, “Yes.” She at first wondered, “Why us?” Now she focuses not on her family’s losses but on helping other families.

“Now when others are in disastrous situations, we are there for them,” she says. “We are returning the favor, giving back in any way we can. After the fire, parents from our kids’ schools and parishioners at St. Teresa came to us and said, ‘Here’s food, here’s clothes. What do you need? How can we help?’ Community families opened their doors and their hearts to us.”

Angie agrees. “I try to keep my faith strong and help whenever an opportunity to help comes,” she says. “After the fire, people you just see in church once a week were so willing to give constantly.”

Their faith was unexpectedly tested again last summer. Jakob, now a student at Sonoma State University, was only a few miles away from a similar fast-moving fire last fall in Santa Rosa. “I was calling him every hour on the hour. Is it time to come home? Should we pick you up?” Lisa says. “It brought back all that fear.”

 “I have seen if from both sides,” says Jakob, who is president of the Newman Catholic Center at Sonoma State. “You turn to your community, to your parish, to your priest. We turned to St Teresa, to Father Mike, with prayer requests. We received help in so many ways.”

In 2009, Jakob received. In 2017 he gave, helping with relief efforts at St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa. “The church opened up the gym for evacuees for drop-offs of food and water and clothes. If you needed something, you went to St. Eugene’s. If you needed someone to talk to, you could go to one of the priests.”

“We had never thought of fires before,” Lisa says. “Now we think of it. We make sure everything is off -- no candles burning, fireplace off. We’re more cautious now.

“A few months ago, there was a little fire at the dump in Auburn. All our neighbors got out at the corner. It was night, and we were watching this fire, thinking, ‘Is it going to get close? Do we need to start packing? Call family and get them to come over and help load stuff. We have to move fast. We didn’t have that opportunity the first time.’”

In photo above, The Avila family stands outside their home in Auburn, which was built following the loss of their home in the 49er fire in 2009. Left to right: Jakob, Angie, Daniel and Lisa. Photo by Cathy Joyce

Jim shares his story of faith and determination after great loss

In photo above, Jim Dalin stands in the backyard of his newly-built home in Weed, which has a majestic view of Mount Shasta. Photo by Christine Vovakes

When the devastating Boles Fire erupted near the small Northern California town of Weed on Sept. 14, 2014, the wind-whipped flames raced in the opposite direction from Jim Dalin’s home. He felt the two story wood-framed house his parents bought after their marriage was secure when he left to help the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Joshy Mathew, who was then parochial administrator of Holy Family Parish.

“Father Joshy called me up and said, ‘There’s a fire!’ He asked me to go with him to check on elderly parishioners. We spent most of our time looking for others who might need help. I never thought the fire would reach my house,” Jim recalls.

But suddenly, the roaring 45-mile per hour winds shifted and embers gusted toward his home. Jim raced back and was able to retrieve a few important papers before being forced away.

“The smoke was overwhelming! I couldn’t even see the graveyard which is adjacent to my house. This dense smoke continued until I reached Highway 97 where it cleared up. I drove into town but I was all shook up and not thinking too well.”

The first account he heard reported that his Angel Valley neighborhood escaped the flames. “But a friend who drives heavy equipment was near my street. He called my cell and said, ‘Your house is burning.’” Jim had lived in the home, except for a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, since his birth in 1942. 

“Father Joshy and I got up on a high spot and saw the fire churning up the hills,” he remembers. Eventually it reached Holy Family Church and its adjacent parish hall. The fire spared Weed’s historic downtown, but destroyed 157 homes, scorched 516 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 4,000 residents of the Siskiyou County town and surrounding area before crews fully contained the blaze.

“You’re in shock for a long time. I don’t think you ever get over the loss,” Jim says. Some things, like dishes from his grandmother dating to the 1800s, held memories which remain poignantly vivid.

“All of that is gone, but those are only material lives were lost.” He acknowledges that losing the church was a blow for him personally, as well as for the entire community. “Many people said they wished their house had burned instead of the church.”

Yet Jim did not spend much time mourning for the loss of his home, his possessions or his church. “I’m basically a happy person. I save my tears for more important what’s in here,” he says as he tapped his heart. “I was OK because I was so busy. Things have to go on.”

At first he spent his days working with others to check on people, to see what they needed, to find shelter for displaced residents. “The logistic stuff,” he says.

He oversaw construction of a beautiful but simpler single-story home on the same lot where his family’s two-story home had stood, complete with majestic views of Mount Shasta. At the same time, he joined with numerous parishioners who worked tirelessly on committees for the rebuilding of their church. 

In March 2016, Jim moved into his new home. After attending weekend Mass at College of the Siskiyous for more than two years, the parishioners of Holy Family celebrated Eucharist in their new church during its official dedication on May 29, 2017.

Jim remains busy at the parish as a sacristan who prepares the altar for Mass and as someone who is one of the “keepers of the keys.” During a recent interview his cell phone rang a number of times with requests from parishioners.

A robust man with a quick, steady stride, Jim travels often and enjoys taking photos of the numerous places he visits. But Weed remains his home. “I couldn’t see going anywhere else. My friends are here. They’re stuck with me in Weed,” he says with a laugh.

Staying busy and being with friends helped him during that rough period of rebuilding, but what mainly sustained him during that loss was his faith. His mother was a Catholic in her youth but eventually quit attending church. “I wasn’t baptized, but I knew years and years ago I was going to be a Catholic,” Jim says.  “It’s in your heart where you feel Catholic.”

He often visited a friend who worked at the rectory. Father John Hannan (who died in 2017), pastor of Holy Family at that time, asked him one day, “Why don’t you come to church?  You’d be a good candidate for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).”

Jim replied, “It’s about time you asked. I’ve been waiting for a long time to hear those words.” He was welcomed into the RCIA and became Catholic in 1999.

After he was baptized, he asked his mother if she ever thought about going back to church. She said, “Yes. But I don’t know how.” Jim arranged for her to meet with Father Hannan. From then until her death in 2006, she celebrated the sacraments.

Jim is not quite certain why he had felt the church was a bit closed off to him in earlier years, but being asked to attend made all the difference. “Maybe if people would invite others to come to Mass, they would also feel more welcome.”

That’s a door Jim is always ready to open.

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