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Spared homeowners in limbo: ‘I didn’t lose everything, but I do have losses’

by Risa Johnson, Chico Enterprise-Record |

MAGALIA, Calif. – For blocks and blocks, there is just debris and rubble.

Then, remarkably, a small cluster of homes is still standing. One of those homes is Michael Vought’s. And he doesn’t know why.

The fire melted part of the fence and appeared to get right up to the base of the Magalia home. Neighboring houses in the front, to the back and on one side are gone.

“For whatever reason, the home didn’t ignite,” Vought said.

Those who were spared find themselves in an odd kind of limbo. Like nearly everyone else affected, they are still displaced. They have the good fortune to have homes that are standing, but they can’t live in them until gas and electricity are restored.

When they are able to return permanently, they will likely be surrounded by debris, then vacant lots. They worry about living next to toxic waste sites. It’s unknown when or if many businesses will reopen.

Despite all of these unanswered questions, some feel a calling or a responsibility to go back.

Michael Vought, a Pleasant Valley High School teacher, and his wife, Jill Vought, an aide for Achieve Charter School, are committed to returning.

“We kind of feel like we have an obligation to do our very best and be good members of the community and do what we can to rebuild the ridge,” said Michael Vought, 51.

He and his wife raised their kids, now young adults, in their home of 15 years in Magalia.

“It was kind of a sanctuary for us, a place we could go to be away from work,” Vought said. “It was just very peaceful. I’d love someday for those qualities to return to the ridge. I’m sure that they will. As I have been reminded by so many people, it’s just going to take time.”

When the Voughts were allowed home for the first time – exactly one month after the Camp Fire started – Michael Vought said he felt heartbroken as they pulled into town.

“I was in tears looking at what had happened to my neighbors, to the neighborhood,” he said.

He went for a walk and got lost. Points of reference were gone. Vought said it was surreal.

Then, later that day, the sun came out – literally and figuratively.

“A little bit of sunshine and you start seeing familiar shadows, and you start seeing your house in a light that you remember seeing it in, and you start to think, ‘Well, OK. I think I can do this,’” Vought said.

When he looks around his cul-de-sac; however, he is reminded that it’s not that way for everyone.

Vought has some fears about returning. He lives in a fire-prone area. Trees and brush will grow back. As human beings are resilient, “so too is nature,” he said.

“Would I expect that I would get lucky again?” Vought said. “I don’t think that it is a wise idea for me to approach it that way.”

• • •

During the day, while Michael Vought is at work, Jill Vought is getting the home ready for their return.

After a large cleaning crew passed through, no smoke damage was noticeable on the walls or in the air. But Vought said that when nooks and crannies like shelving and cabinets were wiped with sponges, they came off black. Higher levels of soot were detected higher in the house, including in the attic, she said.

“You can kind of see that it climbed in,” Vought said of the smoke.

She was ecstatic to get a new refrigerator delivered last week. The other one, which had stunk up the house after being left for a month with no power, was on the street waiting to be picked up.

Vought, 50, has gone up to the house every day since the evacuation order for their zone was lifted. She is taking a leave of absence from work.

The couple is living in a borrowed trailer on a friend’s property in Chico. Vought said nearly everything has been covered by their insurance. She made sure to up their coverage after the fires in 2008.

Standing on her back porch, now surrounded by views of destruction, she said she still feels like she can function better here.

“Some of our special things are here and it gives me a chance to help my community once I can get stabilized,” Vought said.

She will miss people, including neighbors who she and her husband were close with, and the sights and sounds of kids around. Vought helped some of her neighbors find temporary housing. Only two of eight homes on the cul-de-sac are standing.

“It’s sad for these folks,” she said, trailing off.

Vought said that a counselor and her husband told her “stay in your lane.”

“I just have to stay focused on what I can fix because I can’t fix that,” she said, motioning to a destroyed neighboring home.

* * *

Ravi Saip is ready to go back home as soon as possible, even if that means living in a trailer on his property outside.

His wife, Mary Saip, has more mixed feelings about returning to Paradise, however.

“I don’t know when I want to go back there,” said Mary Saip. “There’s just debris and so much devastation and so much heartbreak happened up there. It’s not the same place.”

Like in the Vought’s neighborhood, there are hardly any homes standing around their neighborhood.

Saip, 53, has concerns about how social aspects of living in the town will be different. Nearly all of her friends lost their homes and have no plans to move back. Most of them went through traumatic evacuations.

“I think if I would have had that terrifying experience, I don’t think I could ever go back to Paradise, but I didn’t, so I feel a weird calling (to return),” Saip said.

As she works from home, Saip made a point of going to the gym in Paradise daily and to the park across the street often to get in some socializing. She called senior citizens she befriended at the park her “pond pals.” Saip expects that older people especially will not return.

“I’m concerned about the isolation,” she said. “I’ve tried to visualize what is that gonna be like, the isolation, the lack of people, the lack of a conversation during the afternoon.”

The Saips have been staying in a preowned trailer they purchased after the fire on a friend’s property. They haven’t been able to have the damage to their house assessed yet. The evacuation order for their zone was just lifted on Saturday.

The Saips felt some resentment initially from people who lost their homes. When someone would ask if their home is still standing, and they said yes, that would often end the conversation, the couple said.

“They’re in grief and shock,” said Mary Saip. “I can’t hold it against them. How would I be, if I lost everything? I didn’t lose everything, but I do have losses. I’m changed forever just like everybody else is.”

She added that many people seemed to be thinking more clearly about it now and were offering sympathy because the Saips “don’t have a choice but to go back.”

“We can’t sell the house,” she said. “It’s not worth anything (after the fire).”

When Ravi Saip found out their home was standing, he was surprised by his reaction. He laughed and cried at his desk.

“Within 10 seconds, I felt bad,” Saip said. “I felt really guilty.”

He said they want to represent hope for the community, but when it comes down to it, they don’t really have other options. Saip, 57, is director of operations at Air Spray in Chico.

“We’ll start seeing it every day,” Saip said. “I’ll start seeing the burn scar going up and down the hill when I go back home.”

“We’ll live in it,” he added a little later.