Weed City Clerk Deborah Salvestrin was among those who helped take care of Weed and its citizens even as their own homes burned in the Boles Fire’s wind-driven assault last year on Sept. 15.
She watched from the city hall parking lot as her home was engulfed in flames and destroyed. Then she turned around and went back inside to do what she could to manage the emergency with her colleagues and field questions from distraught residents.
As the sun set, the light faded indoors as well. Weed was without power.
“We stayed until about 9:30 that evening, until we couldn’t see anymore,” Salvestrin recalls.
Then she went to Walmart for the things she needed for the next day, and for the day after that. “Everything I had was gone and I was coming back to work tomorrow.”
Others who lost everything had the same needs and the same idea that night. She remembers seeing people in Walmart she knew from the Weed community and the conversations were all the same, all very brief: “‘Did you lose everything?’ ‘Yes. You too?’ ‘Yes.’ And then they’d point. ‘The nightgowns are over there, the toothbrushes are back here…’ It was like after a war,” Salvestrin said. “Shell shock. Everyone I met there looked the same, eyes real big and staring.”
She remembers lying awake most of that night with her own eyes wide open, “just staring.”
The next day, her husband John began closing their accounts and taking stock of the monumental tasks ahead. She went back to work at city hall.
“In some way I was almost grateful for the fact that I was the same as everyone else coming to the counter with questions. Some people were very emotional and I knew what they were going through. There was a bond,” she recalls.
Salvestrin went to work every day, helping stunned community members, handling myriad phone calls, providing what was needed by the interagency Incident Management Team headquarters established in city hall, and doing what she could to stay on top of what passed for the day to day business of the city in the wake of the disaster.
On the weekends, she sifted through the ashes of her home with CAL FIRE’s help, a process she described as “pretty overwhelming.”
Almost nothing was salvaged, but Salvestrin said she did find one of her necklaces, and a friend was able to clean it for her. “The necklace was important to me, but just finding something there at all was very important.”
She also found stacks of pictures in the debris but was only able to recover about 50 of them.
“They were of our wedding, which was the beginning of our life in that house. Those pictures were salvageable because they were at the very bottom of the stack. The more recent pictures nearer the top were completely stuck together,” she said.
She has since told some of the family members who had given her heirlooms that it seemed they “gave them too soon.” Things from her grandmother and mother were lost in the fire, as was a treasured painting by an early American artist.
“My mother-in-law would ask me, ‘What about…?’ and I’d say, ‘Gone.’ And she’d ask later, ‘But what about...?’ And I’d tell her ‘Gone.’ She couldn’t fathom losing absolutely everything,” Salvestrin said.
In fact, making an inventory of what had been lost was disturbing in itself, she recalls. “My early drafts of the list were shorter because I couldn’t work on it for very long at a time – it made me physically nauseated to see in my mind’s eye everything we’d once had.”
For a while she carried a notebook when she shopped. “We’d go to a store and I’d see different things and think ‘Oh, I had that.’ I’m still thinking of things that need to go on the list.”
Insurance negotiations have been protracted, and the design for their new house has taken longer than anticipated.
“Meanwhile people come to the window in city hall with those same issues,” she said. “They ask me if my own situation is resolved yet, and I tell them no. And there’s the bond again.”
Deborah and John stayed with his parents, Fred and Cesira Salvestrin, the night of the Boles Fire and for about a week after that.
“We were so glad they were there, and I’m sure they were very happy to be there for us. One lovely thing that came from this is that it has given us more time with them – we continue to have lunch together every day,” she said.
Things are moving forward on the Salvestrin lot now. The land has been cleared, leveled, and readied for construction.
The couple has been living in a rental home for close to a year, and Salvestrin is eager to be in her own home again.
“It was important for us to build back on our lot. The investment in our community was very important,” she said. “There is no going back to normal, but there will be a new normal.”