‘Thank you universe. I love you universe.’ A Camp Fire survivor returns home to heal

A year ago, Bunny Keterman fled her home here under a darkening sky with her cat Ku-Co in its crate and the sound of wildfire roaring like a jet engine on the mountain behind her.

She locked the front door, but knew it was a meaningless gesture. Her house would burn. Her placid life on the hill was over.

Credit: McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, Producer - Melanie Hogue

That was Nov. 8, 2018, the day the Camp Fire consumed town after town in the Butte County hills. It was the most devastating wildfire disaster in California history.

Friday morning, just after dawn on a clear mountain day, Keterman returned to the cul-de-sac where her sage green and chocolate brown home once stood amid dogwoods, pines and oaks.

Keterman, who now lives in Sacramento, came back in order to move forward.

Credit: McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, Producer - Melanie Hogue

The 53-year-old social worker has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since the fire. She knew she had to be here to memorialize her loss and to cry, but also to affirm that the fire can’t consume her. She can embrace the new life she is constructing.

She arrived on Yana Court in her Toyota Prius at 6:44 a.m., minutes after the moment the fire ignited a year ago.

She hung wind chimes on a blackened dogwood that had stood near her front door. She spread seed for the deer. She lit incense. She prayed. She shouted. “F--- you universe. Thank you universe. I love you universe.”

Afterward, she said she felt unburdened and happy.

“Thank god this year is behind me,” she said. “It was this terrible thing that happened and I had no control over it. That was the worst thing about it.”

Credit: McClatchy/Producer: Jayson Chesler

‘Just like Paradise.’ Why California isn’t safer a year after the Camp Fire

She is not alone on the ridge today. Busy Skyway Road was lined for a mile with 85 American flags every 20 feet – one for every fire victims – as hundreds returned to Butte County to mark the one-year anniversary of the day nearly all of Paradise and Magalia were destroyed.

Eighty-five people were killed in the fire, some in their cars as they tried to flee. An 86th person, an elderly man, languished six months with severe burns before he succumbed.

City officials planned to stand in silence for 85 seconds at 11:08 a.m. They will unveil a sculpture called the Key Phoenix, made up of keys donated by people whose homes burned. The city will hold a groundbreaking for a memorial called Hope Plaza. In the evening, there will be a community dinner at a local church.

Dealing with trauma in Paradise

Robyn Gray, a Sacramento therapist who specializes in trauma, said it’s all part of “a reparative moment” that allows people some level of catharsis and a chance to create new memories to balance the bad memories. “For some, it is seeing how far they have come from it,” she said.

The streets were crowded and the feeling often festive as residents hugged and chatted.

Only a few thousand of the 40,000 who once lived on the plateau above Chico are still there. Almost all of those are among the minority whose homes did not burn.

Part of the hillside’s drinking water is still tainted with chemicals from the fire. Soil is contaminated. The denuded landscape is at risk for landslides this winter. And last week officials warned that 280,000 damaged and unstable trees need to be removed from private properties, as well as several hundred thousand on public right-of-ways.

Soon after the fire, the area’s leaders unveiled a rallying cry: “Rebuilding the Ridge.” So far, of the 14,000 residences that burned, only 12 have been rebuilt in the first year. Another 470 residents have filed for permits with the town of Paradise to rebuild their homes.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, though, is pleased with the resiliency she sees. She and her husband recently started building a new home, something she knew she would do even before she learned her home had burned.

She was among the first to say she would, telling The Sacramento Bee at the time it was her job as mayor to set the tone. “I’m focused on the resiliency of my community.”

She acknowledged that “everyone has their own reaction to what happened. Some are having a harder time than others.”

Mike Wiltermood, head of Enloe Medical Center in Chico, said that trauma lingers. Patient loads are high, many of them emotionally troubled. He theorizes many have been cut adrift in the Camp Fire’s aftermath from their primary care providers, their jobs, their residences, or their emotional support systems.

“It’s almost like it’s in the air, we all feel it,” he said. “When do we have permission to feel good again?”

‘It’s OK to cry’

Jennifer Keterman, who goes by her middle name Bunny, sees the resilience, but she says people should understand that many who live here or left are dealing with psychic scars. “I want those still affected to know it’s OK to cry, it’s OK not to be over it, but maybe to think of a creative, healthy way to deal with their loss.”

Losing your possessions, including intimate items, is a big deal, she said. She’s heard people say, “Well, it’s only stuff.”

She disagrees.

“It was MY stuff,” she said. “Stuff, it’s memories.”

She decided early on that she would not rebuild on her Magalia property. For now, she’s just holding onto her property. “As much as I love the woods and would love to live there, I know I would be so anxious every fire season. I can’t do that to myself.”

She moved to a quiet nook in north Sacramento, where she has turned her new home, an immaculate 900-square-foot house, into an art-as-therapy project based on the fire, curated with art and spiritual objects. It a big part of her therapy. She shares it with Ku-Co, the Bengal cat that escaped the fire with her that day.

In the living room, there is what she calls an “altar,” presided over by a Buddha statuette and by a white angel wall-hanging that she grabbed as she fled her Magalia home. The tiny hallway holds Tree of Life medallions. A vase holds charred dogwood branches from outside her burned home.

Looters sifted through the ruins of her Magalia home and tossed broken plates onto the dirt outside. She gathered the broken pieces and made them part of a memorial garden in her new home’s backyard.

A friend found her scorched Magalia mailbox.

“Want me to bring it down?” he said.

“Why not?” she said.

It now stands on a new pedestal in her backyard. She planted a vine next to it that soon will climb the pedestal and encircle the burned box.

She’s even added tattoos that reflect the fire’s effects. One on her left calf includes burning orange embers. Another, in Yiddish, says: “Der Mentsh Trakht un Got Lakht.”

Man plans and God laughs.

She has a dark sense of humor, as many in her social work profession do. Last week, for Halloween, she dressed up as, yes, the Camp Fire. She wore a black shirt with an orange fire on the chest and marshmallow earrings. “I know that’s weird, but it’s taking back power,” she said.

In recent months, she has begun to feel more normal again. Routine is important, she said. So is time.

Standing on the hillside under blue skies, at the moment last year when she fled her home, Bunny Keterman said she feels good. “Driving up here, I had anxiety, but doing this, I wouldn’t say it’s closure, it’s like graduating.

“And seeing things that are still alive, to see the trees and birds, and the regrowth. People have homes and they are decorated nice and they have flowers in the yard. People are showing resilience and it made me happy to see that.”