Fire victims who lost homes share their advice

September 7, 2020
As school administrators were preparing to meet the challenge of starting the school year during a pandemic, they were met with another challenge: hundreds of wildfires that resulted in evacuations up and down the state. At one point, the California Department of Education estimated that at least 45 schools were located in evacuation zone, and tens of thousands of students were impacted by canceled instruction. The fires, many ignited by lightning strikes on Aug. 16, have burned 1.6 million acres and destroyed 3,478 structures, according to Cal Fire data available as of press time. The fires brought back difficult memories for ACSA members Erin English and Tim Gill. They both lost their homes in previous wildfires and shared their experiences in hopes of helping those impacted by current or future fires. Back in 2017, English was the director of 21st Century Learning for Oceanside Unified School District. She was in a meeting about creating a learning pathway for students who want to become firefighters when the high school principal and firefighter she was with received text messages alerting them to a fire in nearby Bonsall. They said it was on Lilac Road, the street where she lived. English immediately left the meeting and drove home, where she and her adult daughter (who also lived in the home with her two children) filled their cars with belongings and tried to prepare the house to withstand what became known as the Lilac Fire. “After climbing on our roof with our garden hose and seeing the massive fire coming over the field behind our house, I realized I was outmatched and I had to surrender my efforts,” she said. Meanwhile, her husband, Frank English, was evacuating around 600 students from Sullivan Middle School, where he was an administrator. English spent the next four hours in a Jack in the Box parking lot, watching firetrucks pass and people evacuate as she waited for her husband to finish making sure students were picked up by their families. "When I knew my husband was about to meet me, I went into the grocery store and bought a bottle of wine and two plastic cups,” she recalled. “When he was finally able to meet me, we both decided to toast to looking forward, no matter what happened. We decided that we were going to approach this as an obstacle in our life, but that it was not going to define our life.” Tim Gill was 100 miles away from his home, spending the day with his sons, when he got the call from his wife that smoke could be seen coming up their side of the mountain. Ten minutes later, she called again to say she was grabbing a few things and leaving with the dog. The 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County eventually spread to 76,067 acres, killed four people and destroyed nearly 2,000 buildings. Gill found out two days later that his home was destroyed when a friend who was on a tour of the devastation sent him a photo. “As I look back, we have gotten over the loss of the things,” he said. “It’s the memories of the place where we raised our sons that are the hardest to lose.” Gill, who had recently been hired as director of Student Support Services for Kelseyville USD, turned to his work of supporting staff and students, most of whom were not impacted by the blaze. “For me, having my work and making sure that we were taking care of our students, families, and staff was important for me as I processed our loss,” Gill said. “It gave me purpose.” As they see more and more California communities impacted by wildfires (Kelseyville High School in Gill’s district has been a fire evacuation center for five fires in the last five fire seasons), they said schools need to prepare for the worst. “My biggest fear is a fast-moving wildfire that catches a school off-guard,” Gill said. “Really take a look at your safety plans and see if you have multiple escape routes. Is your plan for reuniting students with parents feasible in the event of a firestorm? Do you have adequate defensible spaces around your school sites? How long will it take your busses to arrive on campus to evacuate your students and staff? Do you react to Red Flag warning days in any way? Like many other scenarios, we need to over-prepare to keep our students and staff safe in the event of a wildfire.” English said school leaders should speak to their staff about the trauma that disaster victims experience and find ways to be supportive — whether it’s being lenient with assignments, sending home an extra set of books, or organizing a meet-up for students while schools are closed. “My advice to school leaders is to have a re-entry plan for the kids who are coming to school after losing everything,” she said. “Each child is going to be affected in their own way. We tried to get our grandchildren involved in helping other families and focused on how fortunate we were.”  While everyone’s situation will be different, English and Gill offered the following advice based on their own experiences.
Make an evacuation list.
Having a list to refer to when evacuating can help you focus on items that matter most. “During the urgency of the moment, I found I was not thinking rationally and left a lot of things,” English said. “There were so many things that I would have tossed in my car, such as my camera, art supplies, daughter’s baby book, photo albums."
Find the positive.
When English returned to her property, she found three items that she kept: the cup her husband brought her coffee in every morning, a favorite spoon she used to eat soup and chili, and a presidential commemorative plate with Barack Obama and the inscription, “And Still We Rise.” “This cup, plate, and spoon are now on my bathroom counter,” she said. “The cup is too fragile now to use, but it is a symbol of survival. We cannot use the spoon but it still holds its shape. The commemorative plate will always be a treasure.”
Know your insurance.
Make sure you have adequate coverage. “Most people are way underinsured,” Gill said. “We were lucky and our agent insured us at a high enough level for our area to rebuild or buy new. If rebuilding a similar house in your area costs $500,000, and you are only insured for $300,000, you only get $300,000.”
Start the rental search early
English recommends finding a rental right away, which was tough for her family. They were unable to find a rental that could accommodate her and her husband, her daughter with two kids, and their pets, so they ended up renting two houses.
Keep a journal.
English advises that whenever you are talking on the phone to your bank, your insurance company, or any other organization, write down the name of the person you are talking to, an employee number (if they have one) and the date. “We were told different things by different people and often their statements or information conflicted with information that we were told on earlier calls,” she said. “I would suggest that a notebook or journal be kept with important information in it. This would include your new Red Cross number, important insurance numbers, and could also be a call log.”
Be prepared to go slow.
Gill said that once you get over the initial shock, there is a lot of “waiting around” for things to happen, like when you can return home or when the insurance company will assess your loss. Gill said going slow can be a positive — it gives you the time you need to process and provide accurate information about your losses to the insurance company. “Recovering the personal property total amount you are covered for can be challenging when the company is pressuring you to settle,” he said. “In most cases, you have two years to submit your claim, take your time, get everything you are covered for.”
Whether or not to rebuild.
Gill spent about nine months going down the path to rebuild when the county said they could not approve the rebuild plan due to the driveway being too steep. “We were then presented with an opportunity to buy a house a few miles away that was not in the burn scar area,” Gill said. “We have never regretted the decision to buy rather than rebuild. Five years later and the burn scar area has not recovered much. I am grateful that we do not see a daily reminder of what we lost.” English ended up rebuilding. The same day as the fire, English contacted a contractor who had done remodeling work on the home two years prior. He agreed to do the rebuild and offered great advice on the project, like hiring an architect right away to make the permitting process go faster.
Pay it forward.
Both English and Gill said they were fortunate to have friends set up GoFundMe pages to help with immediate costs, because it can take weeks for insurance funds to arrive. English used those funds for the down payment on two rental properties. English also used the funds to help other people — they purchased clothes and Christmas gifts for families who also lost their homes. Likewise, Gill recommends that if your insurance is more than adequate, find a local charity that is doing the work of helping those in need.
Find support.
Gill said friends, family, and work colleagues were incredibly supportive. ACSA also provided financial and emotional support. When he attended an ACSA Leadership Assembly following the fire, he said he felt embarrassed to not be wearing a tie — he hadn’t had an opportunity to buy a new one.  “I remember Wes Smith asking me to say a few words and I told the assembly that ACSA was my ‘safety net’ both professional and emotionally,” Gill said. “When I was done speaking, at least 20 attendees walked over to me and handed me their ties. I still have all of those ties; I will never forget the kindness and generosity provided to me by my ACSA family.”
Tim Gill lost his home during the 2015 Valley Fire in Kings County.
ACSA Crisis Support
ACSA is there for members in times of need with crisis support services. First, ACSA reaches out to school leaders in affected areas to make sure everyone is safe and to begin identifying needs. That’s when several support strategies kick in, which could include partnering with disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross or United Way to raise funds for the communities affected or working with ACSA regions to identify members in need. 
“Members who lose their homes or are temporarily displaced by disasters should know that they don’t need to go through it alone,” said ACSA Senior Director of Member Services Margarita Cuizon-Armelino. “There is a whole community within their own professional organization who are there for them to lean on.” ACSA’s Crisis Support also extends to strategic communications planning and media relations, two important parts of confronting crises that often are not top priorities. “We’ve seen many instances where educators are so busy supporting their school communities that they don’t have the time or resources to build and implement communications plans and handle media requests,” said Naj Alikhan, ACSA Senior Director of Marketing and Communications and ACSA’s Public Information Officer.  ACSA has supported districts with building strategic communications plans as well as serving as district spokepersons on myriad crisis-related topics, from teacher strikes to on-campus violence. ACSA has also developed a network of members willing to provide shelter to evacuees or share their experiences around navigating a crisis. Those who need support or wish to offer it can join the ACSA Crisis Support Network at
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