“We finally moved into our new home in September and the Red Cross was one of our biggest helps.”
Between December 7-14, 2017, the Lilac Fire burned 4,100 acres, destroyed 150 structures, and forced 44,000 households to evacuate in San Diego’s North County area. Along with partners, the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties was there to provide help and hope to evacuees in multiple Red Cross shelters during the immediate response period. Red Cross Case Workers also assisted with long-term recovery efforts for those affected by the fire. Here is one of those stories:
When Connie Gagnon and Carla Nielson received the call from their Rancho Monserate mobile home park manager to evacuate due to the advancing Lilac Fire, flames were already dangerously close to their home. This was not Connie’s first experience with the devastating power of fire. “In the mid-1960s, I lived in a small house in Topanga Canyon,” she explains. “The house was just behind the bar where I worked and one afternoon, I looked out the bar window and saw it engulfed in flames.” Running across the yard to her home, Connie managed to rescue one of her dogs, but couldn’t save the other. “I tried so hard to get both of them, but I just couldn’t. My clothes were singed from fighting back the flames.”
Fearing the worst this time, Connie and Carla scooped up their beloved rescue mutt, Maggie, and ran to their car. Carla describes “driving blindly” with embers and burning palm fronds falling alongside the car and across the windshield. Connie remembers thinking, “This car is going to explode.” They finally escaped the flames, crossing the bridge over the San Luis Rey River. “Maggie and our car were the only things we were able to save” Connie says. “We lost everything else.”
Connie and Carla spent the next three days in Fallbrook, at the home of their neighbor’s son. The following Monday, they visited the Local Assistance Center at the Vista Public Library, where they began the time-consuming process of rebuilding their lives with the help of the Red Cross and several government and community partners. “We needed everything,” Carla remembers. “IDs, DMV documents, finding out how to get our home damage assessed, help with filing our insurance claims.”
Carla and Connie’s home sustained major damage in the Lilac Fire and could not be rebuilt. While they negotiated with their insurance company, they lived with various friends and relatives, or stayed in motels. Working with a Red Cross Case Manager, they were approved for Red Cross financial assistance, which is provided through the generosity of donors. “We finally moved into our new home in September and the Red Cross was one of our biggest helps,” says Connie.
Moving forward, Connie and Carla continue to marvel at the goodness of others. “All of the furniture in our new home has been given to us,” they explain. “We could not do this without the support of our friends, our neighbors, and the community.” They give special thanks to their local Red Cross Case Manager Rick Allen and to their Community Recovery Team workers, Robin Clegg and Dawn Hubert.
In the years to come, Connie and Carla look forward to enjoying their new home and giving back to the community that has given so much to them.
The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. Please visit redcross.org/volunteer for more information on volunteering with the Red Cross or visit redcross.org/donate to make a donation.