Hundreds of Redding residents didn’t have much notice before they heard sirens blaring through their neighborhoods Thursday night, calling for immediate evacuations. People who left were snagged by traffic. If they tried to find a hotel, they were likely out of luck; most were booked solid clear down to Sacramento.
So they ended at an evacuation center, like the one at Shasta College. Cots covered the gym floors, and despite the midday noise, many evacuees slept solidly. They were exhausted. It was hot. And they didn’t know when they could return home, or if their home was left standing.
There wasn’t much to do besides sleep, eat and wait. So, people got to know each other. I met Redding resident Robert Miller near his tent. He told me about a woman with a walker who looked famished, so he pointed her toward the hot dogs. When she said she needed insulin, he found a Red Cross assistant. Then they got to chatting.
“I found out her name is Elizabeth, I told her my name is Robert," Miller said. "She reminded me of my late mother. It was a nice thing. People in a situation like this, they have a tendency to come together.”
And that’s exactly what I was seeing at this shelter. People who had never met before gathered in groups and told stories about their nights, their homes, their pets.
And despite feeling miserable and tired, people went out of their way to help each other. People like Holly Rosten.
Rosten ran into a single mother struggling to wrangle her three rambunctious toddlers. The mother was clearly frazzled, so she stepped in.
“I mean, I have two boys, so right away I relate," Rosten said. "I’m like ok, at least I know how to do boys. I’m like, I got this.”
She started playing with the three boys to keep them occupied. She drove them around in the stroller, making car noises while they squealed. She sat in the grass and painted rocks with them. She chased them around in a game of tag.
Rosten didn’t have to be here. Her home in Redding had not been evacuated. She just showed up to lend a hand to people who needed it. That’s how she met this mother of three.
“It just started with, can I help you set up the tent because they kept jumping on the tent," she said. "It’s hard to know what to do or how to be there for people, so you just watch and observe and if you see a need, help out for now.”
Even during the chaos Thursday night, when West Redding residents had to evacuate suddenly, neighbors took small moments to help each other. At the shelter, Amy Faubion remembered she was hardly prepared when she got word to leave the night before. A neighbor was walking door-to-door to ensure everyone had flashlights for the power outages. When she said she didn’t have one, he left.
“He’s so sweet," Faubion recalled. "I went over to a different neighbor to talk and I come back and there’s this flashlight just sitting there on the side of the road, and I knew exactly who it was from.”
Faubion has a disability that made it difficult for her to pack quickly, so the same neighbor came back to help.
“He ended up coming back and saying can I help you pack up your car and I was like, oh my god, yes!” Faubion said.
No one really wants to sleep on a tough cot in a gym, and no one wants to lose their home. But even in the wake of the tragedy and shock and discomfort brought on by this deadly wildfire, the people of Redding came together. They connected through small moments of kindness. They even helped me: a woman took notice when I looked faint and offered me a bottle of water. She told me to sit down, and she brought me a granola bar.