U.S. Army Veteran Fire Survivor Couple Shows Deep Resilience After Taking Heavy Hits

This CrowdRelief Disaster Survivors Story was created for Rachel Galvin by Jessica Ostrowski who is helping them rebuild their lives. 02/09/2019 11:50 PM

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My wife, Micalah, and I woke up, as usual, on November 8th, 2018-- a day like any other day.  Little did we know that November 8th, 2018, would be a date that would stay with us the rest of our lives. 


We woke up around 9:30 on this day, wondering what we were going to do with our day.  I got up and walked past pictures of my beloved parents hanging on the wall in our room.  My mother lost her fight to kidney disease the previous February at age 57.  My father lost his battle with cancer and liver disease a short time later in April at age 60.  It had been a heartbreaking year for my family.  The loss of my parents stung hard as I am 22, and all the responsibility fell on my wife and me to help my family through this time. 


Before I tell the story of our survival, I think it’s important to know the other tragedies we had lived through earlier that year.  Let’s rewind back a few months to the unimaginable losses of my parents that changed my life forever. 


I found out my mom was in the hospital through a family friend’s Facebook post.  I was shocked.  I’m her power of attorney-- why didn’t anyone notify me?  She would go into the hospital on occasion because her dialysis catheter would get blood clots, or she would get an infection and need antibiotics.  It was all routine for her, so I didn’t think this hospital stay would be much different from any other.  I was wrong.  It was different.  Her body was finally giving out, and there weren’t any more options on the table.  I was crushed.  The power of attorney title she had given me a few years before was finally being put to use.  The knots I felt in my stomach were big.  She passed away early in the morning on February 3rd.  In a week’s time, we raised the money for her funeral and cremation, and we had a beautiful service in her honor. 


I sought out the wisdom of my dad during the time of my mother’s passing.  They had been divorced a couple of years by then, but I knew no one knew her better than he did.  He helped me and gave advice, all while knowing his own demise was only weeks away.  He finally fell apart, laying his head on my shoulder, as tears streamed down his face while he exclaimed how sorry he was that he was also only given a short time to live.  The cancer was back, and it was stronger and faster than they could contain. 


The fact that I was dealing with the death of both of my parents over such a short time frame scared me deeply.  We spent his last weeks traveling to see family, reminiscing over family photo albums, and-- oh yeah, he finally got remarried to the girlfriend he had been seeing for a few years.  They were raising my youngest niece together, but that’s a whole other story on its own. 


A week after the most beautiful wedding, he passed away in his sleep on April 20th with my new step-mom and I next to him.  He did all he wanted until his body would no longer let him, and for that, I have the utmost respect for him.  My wife and I again raised the funds to cover the cost of his funeral and cremation, and a beautiful service was held in his honor. 


Micalah and I felt like we had lived through the craziest experience ever.  Only months after she got out of the army, both of my parents passed away back-to-back (two months and 16 days apart, to be exact).  We made it through the hard time together, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I had her by side through what seemed like the worst moments of my life.  Little did I know that more loss was on the horizon. 


Fast-forward back to the morning of November 8th, 2018.  My parents had then been gone for six months. 


Our morning was just like any other.  My wife and I both had work later in the day and we were deciding what we were going to do until then.  A scroll through Facebook left us a little freaked out as the warning to leave town filled my newsfeed.  I worked at a developmentally disabled assisted living center in Paradise, California.  My instant reaction was to call them and get there ASAP to help them evacuate.  The phone rang and rang, but no one answered, which is not normal at all.  I got in my 2001 Buick Regal my dad had bought me for my Junior year at Paradise High School.  I had been babying this car for a while now, but I attempted to drive into Paradise from my house off South Park in Magalia.  The traffic was backed up all the way to my street by this point, and I realized there wasn’t any help I could offer my job of three and a half years.  Unknown to me at the time, they had evacuated earlier that morning.


 With the fear setting in about the current danger we were in, I went back to my house and helped Micalah get situated in her VW Jetta.  I had a dog and a cat in my car and she had two dogs in her.  We started taking cross streets to try to get to Skyway faster.  Our plan was to take Skyway all the way up to Highway 32.  It was a mad-house with traffic everywhere and smoke billowing behind us, making it suddenly looked like night.  People were running out of gas, traveling by foot and by 4-wheeler, with gas cans and guns in hand.  It felt like a World War was happening.  The sound of propane tanks exploding in the background rang in our ears. 


Once we got to Skyway, we sat in a line of traffic that didn’t seem to move even an inch.  We finally saw a woman in a truck going into oncoming traffic and promptly followed her.  She got us all the way to Nimshew Road, where we decided continue to Centerville Road and try to get out to Chico that way. Thank you, unnamed lady in the white 4Runner.


It was scary not knowing what you were going to drive into because it got darker and darker as we drove.  Micalah had hardly any gas.  My car has been leaking power-steering fluid and needing a whole new rack and pinion for a while now.  It actually had a whole laundry list of issues, but the power-steering is what freaked me out the most because it could catch fire.  We made it to the Chico Walmart after what felt like forever.  We parked and my wife went inside to get a few needed items since we hardly grabbed anything.  We, like everyone else, thought the fire was miles away on a mountain nearby.  I stared blankly at the smoke as it consumed everything I once knew and loved.


 We learned on November 9th that our home had been destroyed.  The fire knew no bounds. 


We decided to stay with my sister-in-law in Orland, only one town over from Chico.  My sister-in-law lived in a two-bedroom house with her fiancé, their two kids, both under the age of five, and their sweet pitbull.  They happily took us, our three German Shepherd mixes, and our cat in and offered to help us as we contemplated what our next move would be.  We stayed there a few weeks.  All was well and we managed to keep our chaoes somewhat together.  


Our dogs were all getting along until finally the pit bull had had enough and decided to attack my husky German Shepherd (the only male dog).  The attack happened while I was sitting on the ground with him.  I got caught in the middle of the dog fight in an attempt to free myself while also trying to protect my dog.  My dog, Ashtyn, didn’t do anything to provoke the dog.  It all happened so quickly.  The pitbull latched onto my arm in the commotion.  I was wearing a long-sleeve, but I could feel my arm go numb and the wetness of blood trickling down.  There was a large gash in my arm that showed my fatty tissue.  It was bleeding profusely.  I tried to keep my calm, but all I could think was: “why me?”  I don’t have medical insurance and it was the middle of the night. 


Micalah got home a few minutes later.  She helped me clean my wound and early the next morning, we found a medical camp set up for fire victims where I was able to get some antibiotics.  That day, my sister-in-law and her fiancé decided they needed to put down the dog down as they have young children in the home and the dog showed such aggression.  They took it up to a mountain and shot the dog that evening.  Micalah and I found a note telling us to pay them for damages and to find a place to go.  We were heart-broken and riddled with guilt.  The fire has caused so much heartbreak and hardship.  This family’s beloved dog is now dead because of the stress our dogs put it under.  It didn’t feel fair. 


We paid them a little of the insurance money we were awarded and we were on to our next move.  We drove nine hours to Orange County.  We moved in with Micalah’s Grandma.  Grandma Rachel is a sweet woman who was beginning to show signs of dementia.  She needed someone with her 24/7.  I decided I would help out and stay with Grandma and our dogs, while Micalah looked tirelessly for a place for us to live.  We stayed there a few weeks until we finally secured a home in Riverside, Ca.  They accepted our pets and gave us half-off the first month’s rent.  It’s more expensive than we are used to, but we are trying to make it work.  We spent our first Christmas in our new home.  It was such a relief. 



We finally had something that was ours again.  We could finally relax a little and begin to let the tragedies we had experienced sink in.  What an experience it was.  My life had been completely and forever changed in one year.  My family, my home, and my community were gone.  All that is left is hope for a positive future ahead of us. 


All of my friends and co-workers were affected by this fire.  So many people lost all they had. Starting from scratch is so hard.  My aunt was the only other family I had living in the area.  We didn’t know her whereabouts for two days.  I was fearful that I had lost yet another family member.  Thankfully she made contact with us, explaining the fire storm was all around her and she was instructed by a police officer to run for her life.  A nice lady had picked up my frazzled aunt and took her to a shelter in Chico.  She now lives in a FEMA trailer in Oroville. 


My emotions are all over the place.  At times I feel defeated, afraid of what next tragedy could be looming around the corner, while other times, I just feel grateful to be alive.  Life feels overwhelming and exhausting.  We just have to continue to take it one day at a time. 


We are more fortunate than some.  We have a place to call home.  We do however still need some things.  I lost my laptop and printer that I used for school.  I lost all of my childhood keepsakes, photo albums, and items I had obtained from my parents’ homes.  Micalah lost all of her military awards, uniforms, and memorabilia from her tour overseas.  We are asking for things we had in our home prior to the fire, things that will support us as we attend college in the area, and things to help our household run smoothly.  Your love and support are much appreciated at this time.  The loss my wife and I have experienced this year is overwhelming.  Asking for help is hard, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge.  As we soldier on into the next chapter of our life, we are thankful to still have each other and our fur babies.  Love and prayers to all my Butte County families and the amazing people who have reached out to help. 

Written by: Rachel Galvin

Photo: MediaNews Group, Inc. https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/11/13/camp-fire-day-6-californias-deadliest-wildfire-grows-to-125000-acres/

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California Camp Fire
Recovery Stage
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Living in a Rental House
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