After A Wildfire Destroys Their Home, Family Struggles To Find 'A New Normal'

Sep 21, 2018
Originally published on September 22, 2018 2:40 am

Earlier this week, firefighters finally contained the Mendocino Complex Fire. It burned more than 400,000 acres and has been called the largest wildfire in California history.

The devastation wreaked by wildfires is a reality that Monique and Cody Walker know well. Last fall, the couple had to flee their Santa Rosa, Calif., home with their five children when the 2017 Tubbs Fire swept through Sonoma and Napa counties. More than 4,000 homes, including the Walkers', were destroyed.

Two months after the fire, Monique and Cody sat down for a StoryCorps interview to talk about what it's like trying to move on after losing most of their belongings.

"When we left that night, we already had the glow of the fire behind us," says Monique, now 42. "You're hearing on the radio all the places that you can go to, but nobody's telling you which way to go."

Cody, also 42, remembers that the streets were congested as residents tried to flee. Cars were "driving up onto the sidewalks and the front yards," he says.

The family was blindly escaping danger, Monique says. "You're like an ant with a magnifying glass chasing you, and you're just randomly going, but you don't know if it's gonna be safe ahead of you," she says.

They evacuated first to Cody's work, and then to their church.

When Cody returned to the neighborhood the next morning, the house was completely gone. So were all of the houses in the neighborhood. The couple brought their kids with them later that day.

"It looked normal until you got closer to the railroad tracks," Monique says. "And then you'd see one house burned, and then two houses were fine. And then all of a sudden you got past the railroad and everything was gone. And you don't know what street you're on because everything looks the same — burnt and twisted metal and just ash everywhere."

"Our oldest daughter almost fell over when she saw the house," Cody says. "She cried. And we just held each other for a long time."

The Walkers felt helpless. "It just was a numbing feeling you know? It's like, what do you do? I mean, it's gone," Cody says. "I just wanted to punch stuff, really. But that doesn't do anything."

The hardest part, say Monique and Cody, has been losing invaluable items tied to their family identity. "It's hard not thinking that maybe there was a chance that you could've saved something else," Monique says. "And I keep going back there, and I'm like, OK, maybe I should sift one more time and I might find my wedding ring or maybe if I look I can find my daughter's rock that she really liked."

Destroyed, too, are the woven cradle baskets — given to each of their kids — that honored Cody's Native American heritage. "You don't want to let go of the past because that's how we learned how to live and be who we are," Cody says. "It's hard to say, 'OK, all we have carrying forward really at this point is our DNA,' you know?"

"Friends and family call us and ask how we're doing, and they don't want to hear that we're not doing OK," Monique says.

The family will have to find a "new normal," according to Cody. For now, while they wait for their home to be rebuilt, the Walkers live in an apartment just south of Santa Rosa.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday and time for StoryCorps. Firefighters in California say they've contained the Mendocino Complex wildfire. It burned over 400,000 acres of land. It was the largest fire in California history. Monique and Cody Walker understand how devastating a wildfire can be. Last fall, they evacuated their home in Santa Rosa when the Tubbs wildfire swept through Sonoma and Napa counties. Two months after the Walkers fled, they sat down at StoryCorps.

MONIQUE WALKER: When we left that night, we already had the glow of the fire behind us. You're hearing on the radio all the places that you can go to, but nobody's telling you which way to go.

CODY WALKER: And people start driving up onto the sidewalks and the front yards because the street is currently packed.

M. WALKER: You're like an ant with a magnifying glass chasing you. And you're just randomly going, but you don't know if it's going to be safe ahead of you.

C. WALKER: We were able to get back to our house right away after the fire.

M. WALKER: It looked normal until you got closer to the railroad tracks, and then you'd see one house burned, and then two houses were fine. And then all of a sudden, you got past the railroad and everything was gone. And you don't know what street you're on because everything looks the same - burnt and twisted metal and just ash everywhere. Our oldest daughter almost fell over when she saw the house. She cried, and we just held each other for a long time.

C. WALKER: It just was a numbing feeling, you know? It's like, what do you do? I mean, it's gone. I just wanted to punch stuff, really. But that doesn't do anything.

M. WALKER: It's hard not thinking that maybe there was a chance that you could have saved something else, and I keep going back there. And I'm like, OK. Maybe I should sift one more time, and I might find my wedding ring. Or maybe if I look, I can find my daughter's rock that she really liked. And you're Native American, and we had these beautiful baskets for each one of our children.

C. WALKER: Yeah. You'd have designs weaved into the basketry. So when we lost all those things, it was the hardest part to deal with. You don't want to let go of the past because that's how we learned how to live and be who we are. It's hard to say, OK, all we have carrying forward, really, at this point is our DNA, you know?

M. WALKER: Yeah. Friends and family call us and ask how we're doing, and they don't want to hear that we're not doing OK.

C. WALKER: There's always the talk about getting back to normal or getting over it, but I think everything will forever be different for us.

MARTIN: Cody and Monique Walker. The 2017 Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 4,000 homes in eight Northern California counties. Their full StoryCorps recording has been archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FABIAN ALMAZAN AND LINDA OH'S "VERMILION VOYAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.