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California Wildfires Destroy Homes But Can't Keep Holiday Spirit Down


Hundreds of families in Southern California will not be home for the holidays. Their homes burned in the Thomas Fire. NPR's Leila Fadel visited people spending the holidays in shelters, hotels or with extended family.

ALLIE EKBLAD: Oh, you OK? Does it need a little smooch?

JACE: Yeah.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Usually, Allie Ekblad is worrying about her husband, Matt, battling fires like the Thomas Fire. He's been a firefighter for over a decade. But, today she's on a play date at a park with her toddler, Jace, and her 8-month-old, Ava, trying to feel normal for just a moment as her husband runs around mailing paperwork.

EKBLAD: We lost everything. I had - we had an overnight bag. We had the monitors, my son's, like, teddy bear that he's attached at the hip to. Thank God we got that.

FADEL: Allie holds Ava in her arms as she talks about her house burning. They evacuated to her father's. Their house in Ventura was a four-bedroom, and they'd just bought it in the fall.

EKBLAD: By this great neighborhood, great house, room for growth, and right by a park. Yeah, there was a little bit of a view from one of the rooms. You could kind of see the water.

FADEL: Now they're starting from scratch. Matt's colleagues are picking up his shifts while he and his wife find a place to rent, do the paperwork, make calls about rebuilding, insurance and so many other things. This year would have been their first Christmas in their new home.

EKBLAD: We, of course, had finished our Christmas shopping. The one year I'm ahead of everything - I had everyone done, including the kids, stockings.

FADEL: A GoFundMe page set up by a friend to help the Ekblads has raised more than $50,000. She's grateful and a bit embarrassed by all the help. The kids will get gifts from donated toys. If they can't get into a rental, Christmas will probably be at her father's. They've gotten so much support from friends and even from strangers. But it's still hard to smile, she says, looking at her toddler Jace running around the park.

EKBLAD: I wish this happened when we didn't have kids because there's stuff that I can never replace for him, little things like his first curl or, like, his first piece of hair. I'll never get that back.

FADEL: In the rubble, she did find their safe, burned to a crisp, but inside the container survived with the jewelry her late mother left her when she died. Each piece came with a letter for a milestone in Allie's life that her mother would miss. So she still has her mother's pearls that Allie got on her wedding day. Back in Ventura, people are at the local assistance center looking for resources.

WENDY HELLSTROM: I'm nervous, and I asked my family for Christmas gifts, food and gas cards so we can afford food.

FADEL: That's Wendy Hellstrom looking for help. She's out of work for the next month because of the haze of smoke in the air. She's an athletic coach, and her work is outside. So now she can't pay her rent this month, let alone buy Christmas presents for her two kids. Nearby, the Blomquists get out of their truck in the parking lot.

NANCY BLOMQUIST: We left with nothing, the dogs, our kids. They grabbed a few clothes. And my daughter was like, can we grab the Christmas presents? You know, my husband was like, come on, we're going to be right back.

FADEL: That's Nancy Blomquist describing evacuating from their home. They didn't say goodbye to the house, and now it's gone. Nancy sounds a bit muffled because she's wearing a pink gas mask to protect herself from the smoke; so are her 10-year-old twins and her husband, Jay. He shows me pictures.

JAY BLOMQUIST: This was before.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. It really is a stairway to nowhere.


FADEL: The before is a beautiful white-and-brick home and the after is stairs that lead to rubble. The tree, the gifts and the Christmas cookies they were making the night before the fire are all gone. So they bought a little tree for the hotel room where they're staying. And one by one, they're replacing the gifts. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "PIANO MONTHS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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