Photo by: Wayne Lawrence
WEST SACRAMENTO, California — “I’m one of the happier endings,” Claudia O’Reilly says as she pedals a three-wheeled bike down her street with her terrier mix, Lucy, sauntering along.
It’s quite a statement coming from a 66-year-old woman who one year ago lost her comfortable retirement in a pretty condo when an epic fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise, California.
O’Reilly used to live in the Village Square condominiums in Paradise and had enjoyed its communal pool, her dog-walking friends and views of the majestic redwoods and Ponderosa pines nearby. The development was completely destroyed last Nov. 8.
Yet a long career as a hospital nurse taught O’Reilly that misfortune happens. “I always felt, Except for the grace of God, there go I, because you know horrible things happen to really nice people,” she says.
The day the Camp Fire upended her retirement, O’Reilly already was in West Sacramento, about 90 miles away, staying with her daughter, son-in-law and their two daughters.
O’Reilly had left her two-bedroom condo a day before the wildfire, prompted by an alert from the electric company PG&E that power would be shut off if winds were high.
“A lot of the elderly … were afraid of the fires,” says O’Reilly, a member of the condo board.
Lost all she owned
Still, as she locked the door on all her possessions she could not have known that she would soon lose everything — including clothing, furnishings, musical instruments, family heirlooms, stained glass pieces she had created, vacation photos and a long-held collection of vintage dolls.
“I had $45,000 in life savings, which I know is pretty inadequate,” she says, acknowledging that she hadn’t fully planned the financial aspects of her next stage in life.
She was devasted, of course, to learn that her condominium was nothing more than a grim pile of twisted rebar and rubble, but her 5-year-old granddaughter consoled her, saying, “That’s OK, Grandma. You can live with us.”
That’s what she did, for a short time.
After two months of living in her daughter’s guest room, O’Reilly scraped together money and borrowed some more to buy a used $90,000 manufactured home in a mobile home park near her daughter and son. She moved in at the start of 2019.
The disaster forced O’Reilly, who relies on Social Security and a modest pension, to downsize. Though her new place has more interior space, she’s cheek by jowl with other tenants and has just a tiny garden, no deck with sweeping views.
Her condo had been insured, but almost 11 months would go by before she was reimbursed for the unit. By then her fellow condo owners had voted 31-9 against rebuilding the complex.
Looks back with gratitude
Today she is not bitter but grateful.
She feels fortunate to have gotten out of Paradise and missed the fiery, traffic-choked evacuation. “I didn’t suffer the trauma of trying to get out,” O’Reilly says. “There were people with their children in their cars, and the children were crying, ‘I don’t want to die.’ And people were running for their lives and seeing fire all around them. There was desperation — and fear that I can’t even imagine.”
Two more things helped: O’Reilly’s positive attitude and an outpouring of love in West Sacramento.
Her daughter, Ruth Pagano-Trn, 38, sold T-shirts to raise money for her and rallied friends and coworkers to help O’Reilly rebuild her life.
Yoga studios passed the plate, giving her $1,000 in cash. People, some of them strangers, showered her with gift cards. One man handed over unused wedding gifts still in boxes — “Crock-Pots, steamers, dishes”— which he’d stored for about 40 years.
Some gifts were anonymous. But she wrote thank-you cards, about 100 in all, to the donors whose names she had. “It was every day for months,” she recalls, talking about putting her gratitude in writing.
“Emotional well-being is so important,” she says. “You have to stay positive. You can’t have chronic anger or stress.
“And so I kind of went along with the flow — take the easiest road and not be angry. And think about what you have, instead of what you’ve lost.”