Fire Survivors Rebuild

Judy (L) and Pam

As Pam Bates and Judy Helfand celebrate their 40thyear together they marvel that they are still alive to do so. They nearly perished in the fire that destroyed their Sonoma County home in 2017 and killed 44 people.

A fire sculpture hangs from a blackened walnut tree. The farm was once a walnut orchard

“We were in bed hard asleep when a neighbor called to tell us fire was coming over the ridge. Then the electricity went off. Where we live that means you have no lights andno water,” said Pam. They barely had time to dress and throw a few things in the car. Judy grabbed photo albums. They gathered up the two dogs and the one cat they could find, let the goats and horses out of the barn, leaving the chickens locked in to protect them from predators.

Pam distracts a hen while she gathers eggs

Pam remembered, “It was really windy that night. As I was on my way down to the barn I looked up and saw undulating red-hot embers floating over my head. That was really scary. I could see an orange glow coming over the hill moving very fast.”

They drove out through flames; smoke so thick they couldn’t see the road in front of them. “I’ll never get over that experience,” said Pam. “We got through it but I’ll never get over it.”

Path of the fire

The fires burned for a week and when Judy and Pam were finally able to sneak back to their 20-acre property they found their house, barn and outbuildings had burned to the ground. The horses and goats were singed but still alive. They had lost only one cat, their parrot and the chickens. “And everything else,” added Pam.

All roughed in and ready for sheetrock

A year and a half later the couple has nearly finished rebuilding the farm they’ve called home for four decades. They bought a used motor home, parked it on the land and got to work, employing a contractor to build two yurts and a chicken house first, then the house and a garage/shop. Judy has planted a flourishing garden. The 25 new chickens are laying; many of the trees are recovering. Pam estimates construction will be finished by November. “And we’re still speaking to each other,” added Pam.

Pam and Judy’s temporary home

They met at a Women Against Rape meeting. “Judy was married to a man and seven months pregnant. I saw her across the room and thought she was beautiful,” remembered Pam.

The new garage/shop takes shape

Pam is a phenomenon in the tradeswomen community. She retired at 60 after 30 years as a union pipe fitter, one of few women to hang in through harassment and sexism till retirement from the trade. Judy is active with Racial Justice Allies of Sonoma County. She retired after teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years. They have two kids, and grandkids who visit often.

The new house will have fire-resistant siding and roof.

Now green hills and blooming flowers mask the immense pain and suffering the fires inflicted on Northern California. For this old lesbian couple they symbolize renewal and a new chapter in life.

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