It took a little more than one week for Whitney Vaughan to fully realize the extent of what had happened.
She and her husband, Grady, had escaped the worst fire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, which has killed at least 63 people and completely razed their town, Paradise.
But now their rented five-bedroom house was gone, reduced to ashes and rubble with only a piece of a boarded up shed left. Everything was lost in the fire except a laundry basket of dirty clothes, a busted laptop, and some framed wall pictures she could snatch before hurrying outside. They have no renters’ insurance.
The couple’s six children from previous marriages were in Chico during the fire and unharmed. Now, with all the motels booked by other evacuees, not much money left, and their FEMA application frozen, Whitney and Grady are sleeping in their SUV — but for how long?
“Today, after another day of being unable to locate any housing, my husband and I sat in our car at the park and cried,” Whitney Vaughn told CNN via Facebook messenger. “I feel like giving up. We, like so many other families, have nothing left. I don’t even have words to describe what my family has gone through this week.”
Sleeping in cars
Vaughn says her two children, who are currently staying with their dad, lost everything they owned. Grady Vaughn’s children have rooms at their mom’s house, so they have belongings there at least, she says.
While they’ve been able to stay at a friend’s house for a couple of nights, the couple are living mostly in their vehicle. “One night we were so cold that we decided to just start driving and call every motel along the way until we found one,” she said. “We ended up in Rancho Cordova (104 miles south of Chico).”
Whitney Vaughn’s employer, Enloe Medical Center, has attempted to help them find housing, but nothing was available, she said. “Everything is taken due to the mass amounts of evacuees that are flooding the streets with nowhere to go.”
Their FEMA application is also on hold, she was told, because Paradise is inaccessible, so they cannot have an inspector verify it.
“When I do close my eyes, I see flashbacks of the fire and the people trapped on our streets,” she said. “The explosions and the screams will never be a sound that I can forget.”
“I sat in silence and cried”
On November 8, Whitney Vaughn had just moments to grab the laundry basket and pictures in her home before she heard screaming followed by explosion. She knew Camp Fire was closing in.
She saw a man sprinting past their house carrying a baby. She and Grady got in their car and tried to leave but were soon trapped in standstill traffic.
“The flames were whipping and spreading so fast,” she said. “It began to jump the road. There wasn’t anywhere to go.”
People began to panic, she said. In the chaos, one driver backed up and slammed the front of the Vaughans’ vehicle.
Motorists began abandoning their cars, fleeing on foot with their children in tow.
It took the couple three hours and a half to make it to Chico, safe but homeless. “I sat in silence and cried,” she recalled. “Grady held me and told me how much he loved me and that we would figure it out. We always do.”
“We have nowhere to turn”
Whitney Vaughn said she has to look ahead for her children’s sake. And she fears having to move out of state, leaving behind her job and coworkers and uprooting her kids.
Her children have tried to stay positive. Natalie was pleased with the clothes some people donated and the four Barbie dolls a friend gave. Jayson remained understanding despite losing his collection of Legos, his favourite thing.
But leaving could crush the little bit of hope they have left, she said.
“I just never could have imagined that this fire could wreck our entire life… There are just too many people in the same situation.
“We have nowhere to turn. This fire has changed us in ways I can never explain.”