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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Despite ashes in Paradise, former Niagara Falls couple feels fortunate

Sean Kirst

Valerie and George Griffiths have had a dream since the early days of their marriage, in Niagara Falls. Decades ago, they moved closer to Valerie’s family in Paradise, Calif. They bought a little home on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and their goal was a simple one, built over many years.

Like many longtime married couples, they had things they hoped to do to their house. They wanted to put down some new planking on the floors. They wanted new windows throughout the place. They wanted, finally, to redo their bathroom.

They managed to do all of it within the last year.

Now that house is ash, lost to the wildfire earlier this month that destroyed Paradise.

Valerie, 61, has a photo showing utter destruction, only a driveway and a chimney left of what used to be their home. Most of their precious keepsakes, their family photographs, are gone. That includes mementos from their wedding in Virginia, in the 1970s, when they both served in the Army.

At a time when many from Paradise are homeless, they are staying with good friends. They still get up every morning to go to work in nearby Chico, where George, 62, does appliance repairs and Valerie is an administrative assistant at a funeral home.

You hear no despair in their voices when they speak by phone. “What are you going to do?” Valerie asked. “Wallow in a pool of self-centeredness?”

The death toll from the fire is closing in on 80, and about 700 people are unaccounted for in Paradise or throughout Butte County. Valerie and George, for their part, are safe and unhurt.

So is their son Erik, who was born in Niagara Falls, and his family. So is Valerie’s 81-year-old widowed mother, Melvina Michalowski, taken to safety by cousins on the morning when the fire swept in, a morning when Valerie and George knew they would never reach her home in time.

“This whole freaking town was on fire," Valerie said, "and here we are."

She has a distant relative, an elderly woman, still among the missing. That is the most unbearable kind of loss, multiplied throughout the region by the dozens. Valerie knows all too well how fast the fire was moving, how easily people could be trapped with no way out.

Home of George and Valerie Griffiths in Paradise, Calif., before Camp Fire. (Submitted image)

Everywhere she goes, she encounters different measures of loss. She has a friend, for instance, who had a Dalmatian, a well-loved family pet. The friend did what she always did. She locked the house, left the dog at home, and went to work.

Her house is ash. The woman has not been allowed to go near it.

The way Valerie and George see it, they are lucky.

The morning of the fire, Valerie said, started quietly enough. George, a graduate of Niagara Falls High School, got up early and left for work. He called after a while and said people were talking with concern about what they called Butte County’s Camp Fire, which the San Francisco Examiner says was named for Camp Creek Road, where it began.

When George called, the fire was still in Pulga, not quite 30 miles away. The couple was not too worried.

“Then the wind picked up,” Valerie said. She heard a sound that she thought at first was rain. “Ash had started to come down around the house like a light, fine snow,” she said. “Small pieces of bark and leaf were landing in our yard and the sky became smoked-filled, with this strange orange cast.”

Home of George and Valerie Griffiths, after the Camp Fire. (Submitted image)

She called her mother and then called George, “who said he was coming back up the hill.” Minutes later, Valerie received a precautionary warning on a 911 alert system she set up years ago, during another wildfire scare.

If they had to go, she was ready. Because of those fires, she always keeps handy a couple of “go bags,” or emergency bags. She also pulled out a small wooden chest filled with some heirlooms from her mother. Her husband arrived at the house as the sky grew even darker. As they spoke about what to do, their son called.

Former Niagara Falls residents Valerie and George Griffiths, now of Paradise, Calif. (Submitted image)

Erik is a quiet guy, but he was all but shouting.

“Mom, he said, “you’ve got to go. Go now.”

The mandatory evacuation alert came a few minutes later. Valerie and George grabbed some medications and a few rings, pieces of jewelry of special meaning. They made sure by phone that Valerie's mother was safe, then hurried to the driveway amid darkness Valerie describes as biblical.

George saw an elderly neighbor struggling with her garage door. He ran to help her as she prepared to leave, then hustled back.

They escaped before their area was lost to flames. George had his work van. Valerie drove their 1991 Nissan pickup.

“I drove like a hellion,” Valerie said.

They had plans to meet at a seniors complex, a plan they eventually had to abandon. They could see spot fires exploding on the ridge around them, trees abruptly igniting on the slopes. Every now and then, Valerie said, they heard the burst of propane tanks.

One sheriff’s deputy, directing traffic, said to her:

“Meet your family, and then get off this ridge.”

Valerie joined other motorists in using the shoulders to turn two-lane roads into four lanes. She met four strangers walking along the road, and allowed them to jump into the back of her truck. It took three and a half hours to reach Chico, a drive that normally takes 20 minutes.

George, hopelessly caught in traffic, said the blaze was so close he braced himself for the chance his van might catch on fire.

Valerie and George, on their wedding day, just before they moved to Niagara Falls. (Submitted photo)

“I tell you, brother,” he said, “there were times when the flames were coming up on both sides.”

It was not until later in the day, Valerie said, after she “barreled down the hill and made it into Chico,” that all of them were safely reunited.

They are staying in Oroville, a small Butte County city, with friends Valerie has known for years. The couple has not been able to see their house, but another friend with clearance to visit the area brought them a photograph.

The house burned to ash. Their dream home is gone.

George and Valerie have insurance, but no idea how much of their loss will be covered. They are getting up every morning to go to work, because they need their paychecks more than ever. In that sense, life goes on.

They lived in Niagara Falls, George’s hometown, for much of the 1980s. They were part of a tight group of friends at Lee’s Miniature Falls, a venerable Ferry Avenue tavern. For years, the couple rented an apartment in an old mansion on Buffalo Avenue, only a block or two from Goat Island and the falls, and the thought of it now seems almost impossible.

Everywhere they looked, everywhere they walked, they found water.

Still, they love California, and they intend to stay. They lost their home to the fire, but all the people who matter most to them are safe. At a time when many from Paradise are homeless, their friends will host Thanksgiving dinner this week. The couple is grateful, "but we don't need a day to be thankful," as Valerie put it.

Their gratitude has been unending since they knew they made it out.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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