A year after 49 Fire, nightmare lingers in North Auburn burn area

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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In the dream, 49 Fire victim William McReynolds comes back to his charred North Auburn neighborhood again and stands alone to face homes that have been reduced to ashes. McReynolds, 78, lost his house and nearly everything else in the Aug. 30, 2009, fire and has since rebuilt on the site. But the dream – a nightmare really – continues. And his life during his waking hours has been equally as difficult. McReynolds said he learned that he had leukemia soon after the fire. His wife lost two brothers in the past year and a son from his first marriage died. An infected gall bladder required removal and before the operation, doctors found he had heart disease and inserted two stents. On some nights, McReynolds wakes up in a cold sweat with visions of the aftermath of the 49 Fire clouding his mind. He can’t sleep and is up awake for hours afterward, thinking about the fire. “It just doesn’t seem to quit – it doesn’t back off,” McReynolds said. A nightmare arrived on Aug. 30, 2009, spouting fire and billowing smoke as it rampaged through vacant properties and neighborhoods in North Auburn. From miles away, onlookers could watch the cloud of thick white smoke growing in its move northward. Plumes of black smoke would emerge from the white cloud again and again, signaling another home and its contents, a car or an outbuilding, being consumed by the fire. The horror of the fire itself ended hours afterward when it stopped on a ridge at the edge of the Parkway Drive neighborhood. But the nightmare that arrived on so many doorsteps that Sunday afternoon has never left. Residents of some of those 63 homes report that the stress, the strain and the feelings of terror from that day remain. Some have a deep sense of loss. Others are angry at law enforcement and fire personnel. While many have rebuilt their homes or move elsewhere, they say it’s still a struggle to rebuild their lives or move on. “Everything starts at 14:22,” Joe Castelli said, showing a stack of Aug. 30, 2009, dispatch-log information Cal Fire recently handed over to him and other 49 Fire victims. Castelli said he and others haven’t been satisfied with both the direction the Cal Fire investigation has taken and are pursuing their own theory that arson wasn’t the initial cause. He’s combed the Web for photos of the scene he says even Cal Fire investigators have told him they haven’t seen before. He’s secured footage from TV stations and has confronted Cal Fire investigators at meetings. Castelli and his wife, Faye Williams-Castelli, lost all their possessions from their rented home and have since relocated in a house near Downtown Auburn. Williams-Castelli said she’s found solace in the painting she does. Castelli is combing film and documents, looking for clues to a fire cause that he suspects could involve a faulty electrical line. While Cal Fire officials say PG&E or its equipment were in no way responsible for the fire, Castelli said the work he and others are doing is about justice – not obsession. “While people have built new homes, they’re still angry,” Williams-Castelli said. “They’ve got their houses back but some can’t sleep at night. It was insane that day.” Chris Whitehead, a painting contractor whose losses included not only a house and his painting equipment, said that while he hasn’t dealt with bad dreams, the past year has been a hard one on him mentally. Now living in a rental house in Bowman and hoping to rebuild on his property near Highway 49 and Dry Creek Road, he’s dropped 47 pounds from a loss of appetite he blames on stress and a feeling he describes as “displacement.” Others the Journal talked to for this story also described similar feelings, akin to being on the brink of homelessness. “I’ve felt a tremendous amount of stress, depression and anxiety,” Whitehead said. A rodeo cowboy for 20 years, he lost all his saddles but his horses were saved and they’re being stabled elsewhere until he rebuilds. But Whitehead said he hasn’t been on a horse since the fire. “It’s been a very rough year,” Whitehead said. But Whitehead, with a sense of humor enough to laugh off his weight loss as “the only thing good about the fire,” is also thankful. “The Auburn community has been great with both material and emotional support,” he said. On the day of the fire, Genetta Ison had seen the billow of smoke moving toward her Parkway Drive neighborhood house and was able to evacuate her husband, who was recovering from a stroke at the time, and her daughter, who has multiple sclerosis. Ison said the last thing she remembers seeing was her deck starting to catch fire but she didn’t look back as she left. Ison’s husband suffered a major stroke a month after the fire that she attributes to the stress of their plight. Her daughter, 51, is in a wheelchair. Ison said her condition has also worsened and while it’s difficult to tell with MS, she feels her daughter’s reaction to the terror of helplessness she felt that afternoon played a role in creating a higher level of stress. “If stress gets to you, it does bad things to you,” she said. Ison said that she has been able to keep on track emotionally by continuing to not look back. The family is back in a new house that is more fire safe than the old one. “The main thing is you deal with it,” Ison said. ------------------------------------------------ Ready, Set, Go: Cal Fire offers tips on ensuring your home is ready for a wildfire ------------------------------------------------ 1.Ready. Maintain an adequate defensible space and harden your home by using fire-resistant building materials. Defensible space is the buffer your create by removing dead plants, grass and weeds. Home hardening means using construction materials that can help a home withstand flying embers that could find weak spots in the construction and result in your house catching fire. In addition, establish a family disaster plan with several different evacuation routes, a meeting place outside the fire hazard area and a disaster kit of essentials. 2.Set. As a wildfire approaches, prepare yourself and your home for the possibility of having to evacuate. That means going through a checklist of items you will need to take when evacuating. At the same time, be ready to activate your family’s disaster plan. 3.Go. It’s supposed to be the simplest step – evacuating early before fire arrives. Cal Fire says that by leaving early, you give your family the best chance of surviving a wildfire while helping firefighters keep roads clear of congestion and enabling them to move more freely and do their job. Source: Cal Fire