As a hot and windy weekend arrived in Northern California in August 2016, Carolyn Dabney was keeping a watchful eye on a wildfire that had been burning at a seemingly safe distance from her and her husband's Lake County home. "I'd been watching the Clayton Fire for two full days," she recalls. "But it was moving laterally to us, so that Sunday morning I finally let myself sleep for a while."
When Dabney awoke several hours later, she realized how quickly a wildfire can change its course — and the course of any life in its new path.
"It was some kind of explosion that actually woke me up, and I was shocked to realize that the wildfire had suddenly spread to our property line," she says. "We walked down the driveway to check on our neighbor across the street, and to our horror, she had a fire tornado inside her house."
With precious few moments to react, Dabney, her husband Ted, and their three pets squeezed into a car and fled their home in the community of Lower Lake — fearing that they might never see their house standing again.
The Dabneys certainly weren't alone in their loss. When the fast-moving Clayton Fire was finally contained a week after it started, the destruction was nothing short of devastating: some 300 structures had been destroyed, and nearly 30 more damaged.
"We made it out OK," Carolyn Dabney says during a discussion that takes place exactly a year later. "But, in the end, we lost every possession we had in the Clayton Fire. It was Sunday, August 14, 2016; I'll never forget that day."
Thankfully, the Dabneys' vivid recollection of that terrifying Sunday was soon joined by a second memory — of the many people who helped the couple begin to recover from their personal nightmare. Those people included the first responders, who in addition to fighting the fire were able to locate Ted Dabney after he decided to make one final trip back to their home to retrieve possessions; the local Tzu Chi humanitarian group, which provided critical early assistance; and the volunteers and employees of the American Red Cross.
It's clear that the Dabneys have an extra special appreciation of the help they received from the Red Cross. "They were really there for us that day — and in the days and weeks that followed," Carolyn Dabney says. "We used one of their shelters as a check-in place that first day and night, and the people there were so kind. And then the Red Cross also gave us money so that we could get just a few basic supplies. And later, Red Cross people checked in with us to just make sure we were OK."
She says the emergency financial assistance was especially helpful. "At first, we didn't even have the most basic of things — a bar of soap or a pan to cook something in — so the emergency money they gave us really just helped us get going."
Dabney says the follow-up calls — to see if they the retired couple had found a more permanent place to live — were also greatly appreciated. "There was something very psychologically comforting about getting those calls," she says. "It felt like there was someone still looking out for us."
With the one-year anniversary of the Clayton Fire upon her, Carolyn Dabney happily reports that she and her husband are back on their feet. "When the insurance money came in we were able to find and buy another house in the nearby town of Clearlake," she says. "We have a home again, and that has made a huge difference for us."
Given the emotional recollections — first negative and then positive — that the couple have of the Clayton Fire, Dabney chuckles at the location of the couple's new home. "It's on a street called Memory Lane," she says. "We stroll down Memory Lane whenever we want to now."
In fact, it's their Clayton Fire memories that inspired the couple to do one other thing after receiving their insurance support: They made generous gifts to the people and organizations that helped them recover.
Among those gifts was a $1,000 donation to the American Red Cross. "We couldn't do it right away," Dabney says. "But when we got that insurance check, my husband and I decided to make a gift to support the Red Cross's disaster relief fund."
For the couple on Memory Lane, the decision to make a generous financial donation to the Red Cross was an easy one, Carolyn Dabney says. "We remembered that the Red Cross was there for us. It was a way for us to say 'thank you' and to ensure that the Red Cross is there for the next people who suddenly need help."
About the photo: After the Clayton Fire was extinguished, Carolyn and Ted Dabney (shown above) returned to their Lower Lake neighborhood ... to find the incinerated remains of their former home.