Some people might think 96-year-old Alair VanOutrive is one unlucky woman.
Most people don’t have one house burn down in their lifetimes, much less two. That’s what happened when VanOutrive’s Magalia home burned to ashes in Butte County’s Camp Fire. That followed a 2004 electrical fire that destroyed another home in Magalia.
But as she looks lovingly over her new condo on Long Creek Circle in Clayton, VanOutrive says she is one of the luckiest women around.
Eighty-six people died in the Camp Fire, and thousands more lost their homes and businesses. It essentially wiped out the towns of Magalia and Paradise.
In the aftermath, a strong family and a friendly realtor helped VanOutrive. Not to mention her new city that came together to make her nightmare turn into a dream.
“I am so grateful for all this community has done for me,” says VanOutrive.
Five minutes to leave
She remembers the morning of the November fire vividly. “A friend called at 8:30 and told me there was a fire and I should be ready to evacuate,” she says. “But I went outside and didn’t see anything, or even smell smoke, so I wasn’t too worried.”
A little bit later, another friend called and told her to evacuate – or at least open her electric garage door, as the electricity would be going out and she would be unable to get to her car.
“That’s when I started smelling smoke and took things more seriously,” she says.
She gathered up some jewelry and a few important papers, when there was a knock on the door. “There was a man at the door named Tanner. I’m sorry I don’t know his last name. He said he worked for the city and already his home was destroyed, and he was trying to help evacuate the town. He said we had five minutes to leave.”
After about five minutes, VanOutrive got in her car with only one of her cats – she couldn’t find her other one. That’s when she saw the flames licking the trees at the end of her street.
“Every house ended up being lost,” she says of her neighbors.
She thought they would make a straight shot down the highway to the Skyway, the main artery between the Paradise area and Chico, but it was ablaze. She was directed to take a northern route to Highway 32, usually a 30-minute drive to Chico. The trip that day took 6½ hours.
Once in Chico, she contacted her frantic family, including grandson Justin Martin, who lives in Yuba City. He drove to Chico and helped her get to his home, where she stayed until she decided where to go next.
The move to Clayton made sense because that’s where son David and daughter-in-law Colleen live.
And that’s where realtor Heather Gray came into the picture. A family friend who had already closed 12 escrows for VanOutrive’s relations, Gray was more than ready to help out. As was the entire community.
Gray showed VanOutrive the two-bedroom condo, and VanOutrive immediately fell in love. The open space was perfect for entertaining – “something I love to do,” says VanOutrive.
Gray spent Thanksgiving Day dirt biking in the Mohave Desert with her family but found time to write up an offer on the condo on her phone. She included a letter explaining VanOutrive’s situation as a fire survivor. It turns out the sellers had two children who lost homes in the Southern California fires, so they were sympathetic to VanOutrive’s cause and accepted the offer – even though it wasn’t the strongest on the table.
But the insurance money promised VanOutrive was slow in coming, and the family needed a down payment. That’s where the community of Clayton showed its true colors. A GoFundMe page netted thousands of dollars, and a local preschool even held a bake sale, “with all the proceeds going to me,” VanOutrive says. “I was never so moved in my life.”
Escrow closed in early January, and VanOutrive, who was staying with David and Colleen, moved in soon after.
But that wasn’t the end of the help she received. Local businesses gave her discounts on furniture, and Gray’s company, Windermere, made a donation in her honor.
“My boss and I went out and bought her kitchen supplies, because we know she loves to cook,” Gray says. “It was so much fun.”
Symbols of survival
One kitchen adornment sits proudly on her windowsill: a bell that says “Grandmother” that Martin gave her when he was a child. When he and brother Devin VanOutrive went up to explore the ashes of VanOutrive’s lost home, it was the only thing left from a cupboard of Waterford crystal and other fine pieces. The backside is burnt and melted, but “Grandmother” still stands out proudly.
In another incredible story, VanOutrive’s daughter April scoured SPCA sites and found her lost cat a month after the fire. He too is a proud new resident of Clayton, albeit with singed feet and whiskers.
“I can’t thank the community enough for all they’ve done for me,” VanOutrive repeats. ”It’s time for the next chapter of my life.”
A new sign on her wall perhaps expresses it best: “New Home, New Beginnings, New Memories.”