Oak Creek woman works to help friends affected by CA wildfires
OAK CREEK — On television, Oak Creek resident Janie Romick watched the real estate office she worked at for 16 years in Paradise, California, burn to the ground.
“It was hard to watch on the news,” she said of the coverage of the Camp Fire that killed 86 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. “I recognized all the street signs.”
Romick and her late husband, Jack, moved from the Yampa Valley to a cattle ranch just south of Paradise in 1975 before returning to Routt County in 1992.
“It looks a lot like Colorado,” she said, describing the big pine trees, mountainous terrain and natural beauty. The community, she said “was just like Steamboat.”
Romick has been in contact with many of her friends from Paradise, including Bonnie and Larry Miller.
Larry Miller was the Romicks’ family doctor, and they remained good friends over the years.
“They called me the day of the fire to tell me they were OK,” Romick said. “And that they got out with their dog.”
By now, Romick said she’s been able to contact all her friends and knows they survived, but all lost their homes.
And as Romick learns more about the desperate situation in which so many find themselves, she is desperate to find more ways to help.
She is hearing from friends that housing is very hard to find, and the needs are vast — everything from shoes and toys to bedding and kitchen supplies. Learning from the people closest to the disaster, Romick has been researching the best places to donate. Checks and gift cards are the easiest way to give from afar, she said she has learned.
Romick’s top pick for a charity organization is the locally-based and long-established North Valley Community Foundation, which is set up to give out grants and donations directly, as well as connect people to other resources.
Very inspired by the recent news that Steamboat Springs ranked first in the entire country for GoFundMe donations, she also points to their Direct Impact Fund.
Most people left in a hurry with the bare essentials — if they managed to grab anything.
There were a lot of seniors and retirees living in Paradise, Romick said, and she worries about their health and ability to start over.
Larry Miller lived in Paradise for 47 years and recently retired.
On Saturday, Miller and his wife Bonnie were allowed back into their neighborhood for the first time since they fled Nov. 8. Wearing Hazmat suits and rubber boots, they sifted through what was left of their life in the beautiful house at the edge of a canyon. They were given a 24-hour window.
“We are mourning it every day,” Miller said of their home. “More and more.”
The Millers described that fateful last morning when their dog Sunny woke them. They went outside to see a massive cloud of smoke and flames rushing toward them.
“We felt the embers,” Miller said. “We got everything we could into the car. There was no warning. By the time we got out, everything was full ablaze.”
They drove out of town in a panic with hundreds of other cars. It took 45 minutes for them to go 10 miles. Two of the three roads out of town were blocked by the fire.
They knew their house was doomed.
“We left a lot of important stuff behind,” he said. “And 47 years of living.”
There was his medical equipment from his long career, the trumpet he played with a band that gathered regularly to practice in their small barn and the photo albums from raising six kids.
“All that history is gone,” Larry said.
On Saturday, Miller found the melted pieces of his trumpet.
But the Millers are grateful they made it out. Miller said he knows of several former patients who did not, including elderly people without cell phones or cars, unable to get out on their own.
“There are a lot of horror stories,” he said.
Miller said there are many people who are vulnerable, uninsured or underinsured and people who don’t have enough money to get a place to stay.
Even before the fire, some carriers in the region stopped offering fire insurance or drastically hiked premiums.
The Millers aren’t sure what is next for them, as they navigate the logistics with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We spoke with several neighbors yesterday,” Bonnie Miller said on Sunday, after they returned from the ruins. “The younger ones are definitely rebuilding. It’s the older folks, like us, who are uncertain about what to do.”
“I have three extra bedrooms,” Romick told them on the phone, eager to know if they’d found a place to rent.
They hadn’t. They are currently staying with their son in Chico.
Larry said they are considering moving to Steamboat.
“There are a lot of options now,” he said. “But no answers.”
Larry said he is most concerned about housing and medical care for his fellow residents. People are still living in tents as the rainy season approaches.
And there are lessons to be heeded by other communities, he noted. More could have been done.
“It behooves everyone to have a good fire containment plan,” Larry said. “As well as a good evacuation plan.
“People have been talking about Paradise burning down as long as I’ve lived there,” he said.
Bonnie described their current state as “a real quandary — when family wants you in the big city, but your heart wants peaceful little Paradise, where you hear birds, see deer, squirrels, raccoons and even an occasional fox or bear.”
As much as they loved their home and neighborhood, rebuilding a house when you’re “70-ish” is a massive and stressful undertaking, Bonnie noted, and not something the Millers are sure they want to do.
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If the coronavirus sparks migration, what will that mean for places like Eagle County, which local economic development officials say is well-positioned to offer people the recreation and lifestyle opportunities they may be seeking?