It was a Thursday that started out no different than any other. Eretta Faria sat in her Paradise, California home doing what she normally did each morning, watched a bit of television and thought about the day ahead.
As she looked to the TV, however, she heard the newscaster report that Paradise was on fire. Shortly following, her neighbor began pounding on her front door.
“She knew I had a hearing problem,” Faria said. “She said get out of here now. Paradise is burning. My granddaughter and I are leaving now.”
Without hesitation, Faria grabbed a pre-packed backpack holding some essential papers, her car keys, locked her home and left her home. With little time to comprehend what was happening, her two cats, who were hiding at the time, were left behind.
That was Nov. 8, 2018; an event which the world would later know as the Camp Fire. It was also the last time Faria would see anything within the contents of the home she had left, including her “two girls”; cats Jasmine and Maggie.
“It was dark, dark, dark,” she recalled. “Instead of looking like nine o’clock in the morning, it looked like midnight.”
Faria, a resident of Paradise since 1990, now a widow, living alone in a mobile home park, climbed into her 2013 Hyundai Elantra and proceeded to follow the flow of cars. A trip from her home to Oroville, which would normally take 25 minutes, took five hours on that day.
“I think God guided me out of there completely. But it took from the mobile home park to Skyway at least four and a half hours,” she said.
By late afternoon, Faria found herself in the company of other newly homeless community members at a Nazarene Church which had opened its doors to provide shelter for those displaced by the fire. Members of the church assisted the 80-year-old who, in addition to struggling with hearing, uses a walker due to effects of arthritis. She was given a cot and a few changes of clothes.
The length of time she was there, she believes was approximately two weeks, noting that the trauma of the experience has made certain things hard to recall.
“The Salvation Army and the Red Cross were so fantastic,” she said of her time at the shelter. “The church people themselves were angels.”
From there she spent the better part of three months living in hotels and with family. Her first stop was Yuba City, where she began grasping the reality of her home and all that was in it being gone.
“All memories, all pictures. My daughter’s pictures are all gone from when she was a baby,” the senior citizen said, noting that her daughter had passed five years before the fire. “Just stuff you’ve accumulated over 35 years or more – gone.”
And while grateful for shelters and family to help out, Faria yearned for more.
“I just wanted to get into a place of my own,” she said of transient living and being ready to once again feel settled.
A friend had shared she’d be moving close to family in Modesto and encouraged Faria to consider it as well.
With nothing left in Paradise but memories, Faria made the change and came to the Modesto area.
Now in a new area, new home, no family and just one friend, Faria decided to look for something that was familiar. In 1996, weighing 201 pounds, she joined the Paradise TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) group. She was a member of the group for almost 23 years.
Faria shared she reached out to friend and TOPS Paradise coordinator, Nancy Mark for information on a local TOPS group she could join. With none in the Modesto area, Mark referred her to Oakdale.
In April of this year, Faria became an Oakdale TOPS member. An experience of fellowship and positivity she shared which has been a light in a dark tunnel.
“I look forward to seeing these lovely people. There’s no negativity whatsoever,” she said of the Monday morning meetings.
The group has not only accepted and welcomed the Paradise transplant; they also arrange to send a member to pick her up in Modesto each Monday so that she can attend the meetings. Faria stated, as a result of the fire driving is now difficult. She manages short distances for grocery shopping and small outings in Modesto. The change, however, has been challenging.
“I wasn’t the only one who lived through that terror,” she said. “There were hundreds and hundreds of people.”
The healing process has been helped by her involvement with her fellow TOPS members.
“They’re so enthusiastic about everybody and everything and that makes it nice,” she said of the group. “They’re very, very positive people.”
At the age of 80, in a new location, with no family or close friends surrounding her, Faria admits there are days when things can get dark. She still lives with nightmares from the fire and finds herself worrying often.
Yet she tries to stay positive and stay surrounded by positive people as much as possible.
“I have lovely neighbors. Very nice and wonderful,” she said of her Modesto neighbors.
And she has found what she considers a new ‘home’ in the Cowboy Capital.
“I really like this group,” she noted of Oakdale TOPS, likening them to the group she first joined 23 years ago. “If anybody is looking for a great group to talk to, they are a great group of people.”