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A YEAR LATER: Valley Fire survivor gains strength by supporting Clayton Fire evacuees

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My family was very understanding; they not only knew why I needed to help, they encouraged me to.

When Jessica Pyska learned that the windswept Clayton Fire had torn through the community of Lower Lake on a warm Sunday afternoon this past August, she was overcome by a powerful urge to help. "I couldn't just sit home," she says of her response to the fire that would eventually destroy 300 structures and blacken 4,000 acres.

Day after day, Pyska drove the 20 miles of winding road from her residence in the community of Cobb to volunteer for the American Red Cross. Then, after completing a lengthy shift in support of the hundreds of people displaced by the Clayton Fire, she would drive back home again in the dark of night.

After eight grueling shifts, Pyska ended her deployment, returning full-time to her husband and their two young children — the three people who would most understand the source of her incredible empathy.

"Helping people affected by the Clayton Fire nearby was a tangible way for me to regain some power that had been taken from me by the difficult situation my family has gone through in the year since the Valley Fire," Pyska says. "My family was very understanding; they not only knew why I needed to help, they encouraged me to."

Her family's own harrowing ordeal had begun on a similar weekend afternoon the previous September. "The Valley Fire started in an area behind our house, not too far away from us," recalls Pyska, whose Cobb home was one of many that had dotted the cozy mountaintop community in Northern California's Lake County. "Because of our particular home's location on a ridge, I had a view of that fire early on; after about 20 minutes, it became obvious that the firefighters weren't going to be able to control it."

So Pyska, her husband, their 6-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son crammed the family dog, their 5 chickens, and a precious few other possessions into the family's two vehicles and prepared to evacuate. But before fleeing Cobb that frightful afternoon, the family drove through their neighborhood — honking, yelling, and waving — in an effort to alert others to the devastation that was headed their way. "We had a unique view of that fire a year ago; many of our neighbors didn't."

By the time the Valley Fire was declared contained two long weeks later, the historically destructive inferno had consumed nearly 1,300 homes, including many in Cobb. The Pyska home was one of those that had been reduced to ash.

Pyska recalls how the Red Cross helped her family and many others in the days and weeks that followed. "We visited a shelter in Calistoga, and a caseworker in Middletown helped us with emergency financial assistance. Even as we were repopulating Cobb, the Red Cross was there, driving around our neighborhoods, supporting us with food and snacks."

The mental health support that the Red Cross provided at Cobb Elementary School was also critically helpful to the school's children, adds Pyska, who teaches a Garden class there.

In the year since the Valley Fire, Pyska has summoned strength she didn't know she possessed. Although she and her husband have had their hands full finalizing plans to rebuild their own home (they've been staying at a cousin's residence in the area), Pyska has somehow found the time to provide critical energy to an abundance of community recovery efforts.

She helped organize the Valley Fire Rebuild Expo this past February, which brought construction vendors and discounts to townspeople to encourage and support efforts to rebuild; she has been a key member of the Friends of Cobb Mountain group, formed to protect the area's natural beauty as Cobb rebuilds; and she recently began serving on a Municipal Advisory Council, advising the county Board of Supervisors on the particular recovery needs of the community.

And if that isn't enough, she and her Cobb Elementary students created a heart-warming — and therapeutic — thank-you video.

But despite the incredible importance of each of these roles, none touched Pyska as personally as the one she filled as part of the Red Cross's Clayton Fire response. "While volunteering at this new fire, I ran into friends who had just lost their home," she says. "The shock and devastation on their faces ... it was like looking in the mirror a year ago."

So, Pyska tirelessly pitched in: At one of three shelters the Red Cross supported in the Clayton Fire's first few days; as part of the organization's External Relations team, helping the Red Cross build critical community partnerships to augment its response; at the Red Cross service center; and as a Red Cross representative at the Local Assistance Center.

For Pyska, her eight-day stint as a Red Cross volunteer was both surprising and eye-opening.

"Quite honestly, I thought that helping out at my local Red Cross chapter might be something I did in retirement or after our children left home," she admits.

But after her recent experience, Pyska seems to be revisiting that timetable. "At the Clayton Fire, I was on the other side, helping support the fire survivors," she says. "I was absolutely blown away by the Red Cross and by the dedication of its volunteers. I really couldn't believe it."

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Caption: Jessica Pyska, shown in front of her property, and her husband are finalizing plans to rebuild the family home on Cobb Mountain.