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'Give yourself grace': Camp Fire survivors offer advice to people in Maui

Hawaii officials have said recovering from the Maui wildfires will be a long and costly process. Residents of Paradise, Calif., know what that's like.
Justin Sullivan
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Getty Images
Hawaii officials have said recovering from the Maui wildfires will be a long and costly process. Residents of Paradise, Calif., know what that's like.

Updated August 18, 2023 at 8:30 AM ET

What do you do after wildfires have destroyed your home, your community and the life you knew?

That's a question on the minds of residents of Maui, where deadly wildfires killed more than 100 people and devastated the town of Lahaina last week. And it's one that many others in the western U.S. have had to grapple with in recent years, too.

For some, the events unfolding in Maui serve as a painful reminder of what they went through and the lessons they learned. That's especially true for survivors of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and virtually destroyed the California towns of Paradise and Concow.

"You really can't go anywhere in this community right now without having the discussion of their fire and the similarities and how heart-wrenching it is to see those images," says Melissa Crick, the board president of the Paradise Unified School District. "Because really, you could put those images side by side to Paradise and you wouldn't know the difference."

She's not just talking about the extent of the devastation in Maui and Paradise, but of the makeup of the communities and the challenges they face in rebuilding.

Both seem to have had difficulty accessing emergency resources initially because of their remoteness, she says, and have a high proportion of lower-income residents who may be underinsured or lacking coverage altogether.

Other survivors have also pointed to the lack of warnings ahead of both fires — with many people fleeing on foot or in vehicles as the blazes spread — and concerns about land grabs in their wake.

Crick says Camp Fire survivors understand all too well what people on Maui are going through "right now and in six months, in a year and five years."

She says it's somewhat healing to be able to share that information and those resources — like whom to reach out to, where to start, what they would have done differently — with people now, in the hopes of making a difficult process easier to navigate.

Several Camp Fire survivors, speaking to NPR's Morning Edition, offered advice to those in Maui as they process their losses, get back on their feet and look ahead to rebuilding. And while they imparted tips ranging from the emotional to financial to logistical, they all stressed the same thing: There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

"We have people today, almost five years later, still in every stage of recovery," Crick says. "You have to live in your experience and just take it day by day."

Here are some pointers they hope will help along the way.

Crosses in Paradise memorialize the victims of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures.
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Crosses in Paradise memorialize the victims of the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures.

Prioritize your physical and mental health

Crick says people in Maui are likely still in survival mode, and that's OK.

This is the time to find a place to stay, check in on family and friends and address your most immediate needs, she says, not to worry about what rebuilding or relocation looks like.

"Give yourself grace," Crick says. "This is probably the most stressful thing that you'll ever go through. And again, there's no right or wrong answers. Just do what you need to do in the early days to make sure everybody is safe."

Richard and Zetta Gore agree. They lost their home and all of their belongings to the Camp Fire, and say would have lost their lives had they not abandoned their car and fled on foot to the next town.

Their first stop was a shelter, which Zetta describes as a gymnasium full of hundreds of strangers on cots. She says peoples' first priority should be finding a "safe place to just try and rest."

She also warns that people should be aware of any lingering dangers — like unsafe drinking water, falling trees or chemicals in the burn zone — and stay away from hazards that can hurt them in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Survivors say tending to your mental health is just as important, especially in the longer term. Zetta, who recently retired as a nurse in Paradise, says she has patients who "are still not over it."

"There may be some people that have lost loved ones in that fire or just so many circumstances that caused them to emotionally break down," she says. "They're going to need counseling."

Crick says that years of working in fire recovery have taken a toll on her memory and mental health, and urges people to make sure they're taking care of themselves — just like when airlines encourage people to put their own mask on first.

That could mean taking up agencies and experts on their offers to help.

"In the early days it seems so silly — these people want to come in and kind of give you these kumbaya resources and it's like, 'We need food and water,' " she says. "But I promise you, you need all of it. It has to be a combination of all of those things to recover."

Laura Nelson, a Camp Fire survivor and therapist, says people on Maui are likely in "fight, flight or freeze"-mode, given the high-stress circumstances.

"Imagine someone that you love and care about died, times your whole community," she says. "It's not just your home that perished. It's the entire town. And so your stress, your brain chemicals, there's a lot of increase of cortisol, increase of adrenaline. And these are all new things on your nervous system that you're going to kind of have to cope with."

Nelson herself experienced vertigo and tinnitus for several months after the fire, which she narrowly escaped by car with her pets.

Nelson lost her house in Paradise, Calif., in the November 2018 Camp Fire.
/ Laura Nelson
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Laura Nelson
Nelson lost her house in Paradise, Calif., in the November 2018 Camp Fire.

She encourages people to try certain strategies — from deep-breathing to various forms of self-care and therapy — that can help them "slow down, feel connected in the community, and [gain] another sense of safety, love and belonging."

Ask for — and accept — help

Everyone NPR spoke to stressed that wildfire survivors should not be afraid to ask for help — and be specific about what they need.

"I think that's one of the biggest lessons that we learned from our fire, is that people across the world want to be helpful right now," Crick says.

Even so, she says, they don't always know how best to help. Crick remembers that in the weeks after the Camp Fire, the school district received thousands of backpacks when what students really needed were survival resources.

"It's OK to put on your Facebook, to put on public organization Facebooks, that you don't need people to send you clothes; you need cash cards," she says, adding that once things have stabilized a bit more, the community should figure out which organizations and leaders will take the lead in collecting and disseminating those resources.

Zetta and Richard Gore said they were "absolutely blown away" by the help they received in the wake of the fire.

In particular, they appreciated that Chico — the nearest big town — set up a building full of resources, from water to clothes to Red Cross and insurance representatives, so that people could get what they needed all under one roof.

They said entities from around the world offered everything from prepaid credit cards to furniture to mattresses and meals, while their church and family members helped them get back on their feet with other basic necessities (including toothbrushes, one of the first things they had to buy). No one has to go through this alone, Richard said.

"Everybody reaches out and helps," he added. "Take advantage of everything because when you lose everything, you don't have anything. But there's lots of help out there. So get involved, take what's given. And it really gives you a platform to stand on again and to get going back with life."

Of course, several survivors noted, people may not be able to accept a lot of items if they don't have a place to keep them, especially if they're moving between temporary living accommodations for the foreseeable future.

That was the case for Nelson. She remembers being overwhelmed with bags of clothes and kitchen supplies, not wanting to turn them down but not knowing what to do with them. She eventually asked for the things she needed, which led to a memorable meetup with a woman who brought her a bag of stuff including shoes, clothes, a Bible and a hand-sewn beanie.

Laura Nelson poses with her dogs in Butte Meadows, Calif., in December 2022.
/ Laura Nelson
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Laura Nelson
Laura Nelson poses with her dogs in Butte Meadows, Calif., in December 2022.

"I had to humble myself and learn trust, learn vulnerability, learn acceptance of what it means for others to provide for my welfare because I had nothing and I was met with perfect strangers who met me in a parking lot," she said, adding "that changed my life."

Strategy and patience are key for navigating aid

Survivors also offered advice for navigating the red tape of insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, and say patience and documentation are key.

Crick encourages people to get a binder or notebook and keep notes on everything.

"When you're reaching out to all of these agencies, whether it's just local resources seeking food, water, gift cards, those first meetings with FEMA, keep records, because your mind is going to be hazy right now," she says. "And unfortunately, it gets worse before it gets better."

She says anytime you make a first contact with an authority, whether its FEMA or your insurance company, write down that person's name, title and contact information. You could even ask for business cards and tape them on the page.

She says you probably won't be speaking with the same people every time, and being able to point to conversations with specific individuals on specific dates will make the process much easier.

Richard and Zetta Gore say one of the first things they tell people about their experience is "we hope you have insurance." He says it can be stressful to navigate the bureaucracy, but worth the benefits.

The Gores had trouble communicating with insurance right after the fire: They had to go to Chico and stand in line for hours every day just to get their mail. They anticipate people on Maui facing similar challenges, and urge patience.

"We live in a quick, fast age today where everything's done over the internet," he added. "And when you don't have that opportunity, things come down to a snail pace."

Nelson urges people without insurance to connect with FEMA and other available resources, like United Way. For those who do, she recommends keeping in touch with their provider — and holding their ground — throughout the process.

"If they deny you something, argue it," she says. "Talk to a supervisor. You might have to call in a different adjuster. I mean, don't let them tell you no."

Give yourself time to figure out next steps

Survivors say it may take time to decide on those longer-term goals, and certainly to achieve them.

The question of rebuilding versus relocating can be a tough one for many.

"People, regardless of what their tangible resources are, you want to stay and you want to be a part of the recovery and you want to rebuild your community," Crick says. "And so those are very hard conversations to have with your family and yourself and to reconcile with what is actually possible."

Nelson says the decision to leave can come with a lot of guilt and anxiety. But, speaking from personal experience (she now lives in Chico), she says there are cases in which "you must self-preserve, because you can always return."

She says everyone is affected by — and responds to — tragedy differently, and it's important to hold space for that grief and uncertainty.

The Gores' house in Paradise burned to the ground in November 2018. They spent years rebuilding it.
/ Richard and Zetta Gore
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Richard and Zetta Gore
The Gores' house in Paradise burned to the ground in November 2018. They spent years rebuilding it.

The decision to stay can also be complicated, as the Gores know. Zetta says they initially didn't consider coming back, which was the case for many people in town (Paradise had lost over 90% of its population a year after the fire, though has seen a surge in the years since.)

"It took us a while to even warm up to the thought of coming back," she adds. "But we checked out so many other areas and so [many] questions in our minds, and we feel that the Lord directed us back here. He just said, 'Readdress Paradise.' And we did. And we fell in love with it again."

It was at least a month before the couple could even visit the site of their old house, Zetta says, adding that "you cannot rush the process of the cleanup and of getting back to normal."

The Gores lived in a trailer on their burned-out lot for a year while Richard — a retired general contractor — rebuilt their house, a process that took several years.

Richard and Zetta Gore at home in their post-fire home in Paradise.
/ Richard and Zetta Gore
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Richard and Zetta Gore
Richard and Zetta Gore at home in their post-fire home in Paradise.

Richard notes that building standards changed after the fire and their new home is built differently, so they feel safer than they did before. But Zetta points out that even now, when they leave for extended periods of time, they pray that it will still be standing when they get back.

The biggest tip they have for people in Maui is to not expect anything to change quickly — but not to lose hope, either.

"Stand up. Start each day anew and go receive what help is out there," Richard says. "Our advice is, stay strong, seek help, receive it, and life will get back on track."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 17, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said Laura Nelson lived in her car after the fire. In fact, she stored most of her belongings in her car.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Naina Rao
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