Cinde and Melissa: forging friendship in a fire’s aftermath
The morning of November 8th, 2018, Melissa Johnson was more than eight months pregnant, letting herself sleep in while her kids got ready for school. She remembers her husband and daughter talking about the sky — it looked orange — and thinking maybe there was a fire in a neighboring town. Half an hour later, Melissa’s daughter called: “She said school was canceled and I got up and I saw the sky, and it was a shock. It was red and orange and looked like doomsday. And then I saw the ashes all around.”
Melissa and her husband, Trevor, had lived in Paradise, California for 14 years but moved into their home a week before the state’s devastating Camp Fire. That morning, “Something inside me told me we needed to pack up everybody and head out, just for safety, just to be sure.” In addition to Melissa, Trevor, and their two kids, “everybody” included Trevor’s father, two Great Danes, a toy poodle, a cat, and a rabbit. They piled into two separate cars and Melissa rushed to pick up her children.
“People were panicking and driving like maniacs. It was absolutely something you would expect to watch in a movie. You wouldn’t expect to have to live through that and to see something so scary. Fire left, right, in front of you, behind you. At moments it felt like I was driving into the fire — and I didn’t know if I was making the right choices on which way to go. I was crying the whole time.”
The family eventually made it to Chico, where they could stay with Melissa’s sister, but it was a one-bedroom apartment hosting four combined households. “We were a total of 15 people, and 18 or 19 animals,” says Melissa. “My mom slept in her Durango, but still, it was packed in that apartment — maybe 500 square feet? Especially with me being pregnant, it was very uncomfortable. So I knew we had to think of something else.”
Going “all in”
A few days after the Camp Fire started, Cinde Dolphin, an entrepreneur in Sacramento, was sitting in church, listening to her pastor talk about the idea of going all in. “He was describing not holding back and really making your life valuable by jumping in with both feet.” A lifelong volunteer, Cinde was already engaged with church youth groups, mentoring a teenager in foster care, and organizing breakfasts for the homeless, among other projects. “But as I was hearing the words I thought, just down the road in Butte County we’ve got this horrible fire going on, and I’m not all in, you know? Sending some blankets and T-shirts is very nice, but how can I myself be integral in the recovery process?” She contacted her local fire department and they pointed her to Open Homes.
Cinde had never hosted Airbnb guests, and she’s a renter in her Sacramento home, which also includes an in-law guesthouse. With permission from her landlords, she cleaned the space and listed it on the Open Homes disaster relief page. “Within the hour,” Cinde says, she received a message from Melissa. “The opening line was — I’ll never forget it — ‘God bless you.’ And then [Melissa] went on to describe her family, an 11-year-old son, a husband, a father-in-law who was disabled. She said, ‘We are desperate right now, we’re a small family with a couple of dogs, and we know that that may be an issue, but if you’re open to it we’d love to be able to stay in your place. Oh, and I’m very pregnant, too.’ The whole scenario just hit me right in the heart — I couldn’t believe that anybody could ever say no to that.”
The moment of truth
Cinde responded immediately, and within less than 24 hours, Melissa and her family arrived in Sacramento. As a first-time host, Cinde recalls having mixed emotions. “I was anxious, because I’d never offered up a home to a stranger. Before I answered the door, I thought, ‘I hope I’m doing the right thing. I’m a single woman living in this house and maybe this isn’t the right thing to do…’ But when I opened the door and saw [Melissa] I knew in a second that I was absolutely doing the right thing.”
Melissa also remembers feeling nervous. “You don’t know what kind of situation you’re going to, and coming from such a big, tragic shock, we’d had a hard time processing everything. But Cinde and her smile just brightened up everything and made us feel comfortable. You could tell she was a very sweet person.”
Cinde had done some preparation to help the family feel comfortable, putting “clean towels, a couple of space heaters and hot chocolate” in the guesthouse. “I just anticipated what might be most needed when you’re moving into a new place and thinking, ‘What do I do now?’” The two women had been texting back and forth about logistics, so Melissa knew what to expect as far as space. “Cinde let us know that it was gonna be a tight squeeze, but she didn’t mind as long as we didn’t mind. And of course, we can make anything work. There was an extra pull-out bed, an awesome little bathroom, it was very cute. It felt like a home away from home.”
Through Facebook, Cinde alerted friends to the fact that she had guests who’d lost everything in the Camp Fire. Neighbors cooked dinner and friends delivered diapers, clothes, and a playpen for the baby on the way. Cinde explains, “My friends just rallied. I think it’s more impactful if you know the actual family you’re helping — people want to know firsthand that they’re touching a life.”
Although Melissa’s family stayed for just three nights before finding a more permanent apartment, their time at Cinde’s allowed them to rest and plan their next steps. “I thought they were gonna be in tears and very anxious,” says Cinde, “but in fact their mood was, ‘Thank you. We’re gonna get back on our feet, and we’re happy we have a place where we can do that.’ [It was] an opportunity for them to get their heads on straight, to realize that if you do it one day at a time, you can get through it.”
Today, Melissa’s family lives in an apartment in Carmichael, about 20 minutes from Cinde. Baby Annette was born five days after their move, and Cinde and Melissa check in often via text, sharing updates and baby pictures. Recently, Cinde hired Melissa to do product education at her small business, where she can work part-time while taking care of the baby. Melissa remarks that Cinde “is somebody special, she made an imprint on my life. I’ll never forget her kindness and just being there for us. She continues to be there for us and offers her hand anytime we need one.”
Melissa and Trevor are still figuring out how and when they’ll rebuild in Paradise, but returning is definitely their long-term goal. “I can’t say that I saw home in the same way before the fire as I do now,” says Melissa. “A home, to me, is where your family is. You can make a home anywhere.”