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Calistoga Family Rebounds after the Fire with help from ParentsCAN

Once there were tubs full of Legos to play with. Bikes to pedal under the tall pine trees. Comfy beds to sleep in, and nothing but pretty forest for a front yard, every so often visited by gobbling wild turkeys.

But that was then, before the Tubbs Fire torched the Hickman family’s lovely mountain home overlooking the north edge of Calistoga into ash on Oct. 8.

For the past month and a half, the Hickmans have been living in a hotel — reconstructing their lives one shred at a time.

There have been new beds to buy, and dressers. And pots and pans. And pants, shoes, shirts and coats. Every one of those things takes thought, time and a trip to a store or the home of a kindly friend or neighbor who’s donating something.

As it does for thousands of others burned out of their homes in the Wine Country firestorm, the to-do list seems endless: cancel utility bills, replace phones, get new school backpacks for the kids — Victoria, 12, and Alex, 6 — and find new ways to do homework until you can replace the computers that burned up.

But spend two minutes with Michelle and Dan Hickman and their children, and what stands out most is the near lack of sorrow or anger at having lost virtually everything they owned. They grieve, yes — and Victoria still winces every time she passes an open flame, like in a fireplace.

But these four people barely escaped with their lives as a wall of fire bore down on their house, flinging ash and choking smoke into their faces. And they know that’s what counted the most.

Their gratitude for the gift of life shows in the way they readily laugh together, in how Michelle volunteers her time helping other fire victims with food and supply deliveries, and in how Dan went right back to work at the Solage Hotel in Calistoga — which has been putting the family up while they find a new place — after a short break to make sure everyone was OK and situated.

“What can you do, really?” Michelle, 40, said the other day as she picked Alex up at Calistoga Elementary School. “The most important thing is, we’re all still together. So after that, you just have to think about how interesting, how odd, it is the way things happen. How the puzzle pieces fit together in your life.

“And then you push ahead.”

Sabrina McLeran, a caseworker at the nonprofit ParentsCAN who helped the Hickmans
with fire recovery, said, “What really struck me was how resilient this mom was.
“Michelle came into my office right after the fire with a smile on her face,” McLeran said. “She was just so grateful to be alive and willing to let this be the situation that it is. You just don’t see that, but Michelle and that family roll with the punches. They lost everything — the home and the car and the kids’ toys, everything. But they’re going to be OK.”

As Alex emerged from his first-grade classroom the other day, he ran to his mom, hugging her tightly with a big grin on his face. “Great day!” he beamed. Michelle beamed back.

That great day is about to be followed by an even greater one — move-in day.

The Hickmans are moving into a new rental house in late November with the help of Season of Sharing, which paid the first month’s rent. The new place is not isolated on a ridge and up a long mountain driveway like the home they lost; it’s in the center of town. And in this house, the kids will have separate rooms.

“It really was nice being in nature and away from things before, but we really like the new place, too,” said Michelle, who stays at home to care for the children. “Now I can walk the kids to school instead of having to drive them. It’ll be nice to be right in town and get to know our neighbors better.”

The fact that the Hickmans were able to flee their rental ranch home is all the more remarkable considering the house was just one hill away from where the Tubbs Fire started — so there was no warning.

Victoria saw it first. Around 9:40 p.m., as she was getting ready to sleep, she glanced out the bedroom window and saw a flash of white stab the night sky. She looked away for a minute, and when she looked back, the horizon was filled with an orange glow.

“There’s a weird orange light outside, Mom,” the girl called out, and when Michelle peered outside, the glow was turning into flames. Dan happened to be outside trying to clear a fallen tree from their long, downhill driveway with his parents, who were visiting for Victoria’s birthday, and he soon saw the danger and ran back to the house.

By the time they grabbed a lockbox containing passports and other papers, snatched up the sleeping Alex and piled into two cars, the fire was a roaring wall just across a meadow from their ridge. They sped down a twisting fire road, since the driveway was blocked by the fallen tree, and headed for the center of Calistoga a couple of miles away.

The Diablo winds that whipped the Wine County blazes into deadly frenzies that day rocked their vehicles as they drove. On the ridges towering above them, flames were so intense they whirled into tornadoes.
By the time the Hickmans and the grandparents parked their cars, the house was gone and the firestorm was marching southwest to ruin parts of Santa Rosa. But they didn’t know that until the next day when they drove back uphill to assess the damage.

In the debris “we found a few Christmas village ceramic houses, parts of our wedding toasting goblets and an old tea set, but not much else,” Michelle said on a recent trip with the kids to view the wreckage again.

She smiled wanly and pointed to her formerly blue Toyota Matrix, now an orange metal skeleton in what used to be their carport. “Not going anywhere soon,” she murmured. “So much gone, so much.”

“That fire was sure hot,” Alex mused, running a hand along the handlebar of his charred bicycle, which stands erect where the flames left it, rubber melted away and wheels torched into thin strips. “It was bigger than ... bigger than the flame on my dad’s barbecue.

“But we never cry now,” he said. “My sister is a hero for seeing the fire and warning us, and now we’re just happy everyone was saved.”

After checking the old house, the family drove to the new one, where they’ve been moving in furniture and planning where to plant tomatoes and potatoes in the back yard.

There will someday be a new sewing machine for Victoria, who creates some of her own clothes and dreams of being a fashion designer. There will also be a kitchen full of pans and cooking pots and plates, and couches and chairs in the mostly empty living room.

But for now the house is an artwork in progress, brimming with potentials and promises. And the Hickmans like that.

“Now I can walk to my friends’ houses,” Victoria said, peering over the side-yard fence.

“We can play cops and robbers back here!” Alex said, dashing behind a persimmon tree.

“We can be home,” Michelle said quietly. “Again.”

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Their-home-lost-to-the-Tubbs-Fire-Calistoga-12378912.php

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