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FireWatch: Slater Fire victims still struggling one year later as Happy Camp rebuilds

September 8, 2020 is a day that Crystal Jones and the city of Happy Camp will never forget. One year later, dozens of people like Crystal are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt.

Posted: Sep 8, 2021 5:05 PM
Updated: Sep 9, 2021 11:15 AM

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. -- For Crystal Jones, September 8, 2020 will be a day that she will never forget.

That morning, Jones and her daughter had to drive to Medford for a dentist appointment, her home in Happy Camp surrounded by smoke that was trapped in the area from wildfires burning across the state.

But at the time, there was no immediate danger to the city from those wildfires.

She went out that morning, feeling out of sorts with the smell of fresh smoke all around, but continued on with her day. But by the time she got to Medford a few hours later, her whole life would forever be changed.

Her daughter received a call from Jones' ex-boyfriend.

“Somebody finally got through to her and she came running in and told me that everything was on fire and we were losing everything,” Jones said.

The Slater Fire destroyed everything they had. The more than 20,000 photos Jones had taken, the family heirlooms of her mother who had just passed away a few years before, were now a pile of ash.

“It was all I had left of my mom, everything she left me,” said Jones. “It was heart wrenching.”

For twelve months, Jones along with hundreds of other families in Happy Camp have been trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild. But the memories of that day still haunt some of those victims to this day.

“It went on for months,” Jones said. “I still have dreams of my house burning up. I can still see every house and every picture on the wall and I see them burning. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get over.”

For the past year, the city and the community have been doing everything that they can to try and help the victims of the Slater Fire.
Abby Yeager, the executive director for the Happy Camp Community Center, told NewsWatch 12 that they want to help every Slater Victim that’s left the area, return to their homes.

“We really want people who want to live in Happy Camp and return here to have the ability to do that,” she said.

Yeager says that when the recovery process began, FEMA only sent one case manager to the city to assess the damages. But thanks to a system that they created, tracking just how many people were impacted by the fire, they were able to prove that more case managers were needed.

The Karuk Tribe also stepped up in a huge way in the last twelve months. According to Yeager, the Karuk re-appropriated Cares Act Funding to be able to provide RVs and trailers to all of the Slater Fire victims who wished to stay in the area.

“It wouldn’t have been possible without the Karuk Tribe,” Yeager said.

But twelve months later, several families, like Jones and her daughter, are still living in those trailers and RVs.

The process for rebuilding those victims homes, remaining slow as FEMA continued to deal with other natural disasters across the country.

Jones told NewsWatch 12 that she is still weeks away from final approve from FEMA to be able to start rebuilding. But even once that gets approved, she could be waiting even longer.

“It will probably be around spring that I can start moving in and doing any kind of rebuilding,” she said. “Because it gets really muddy here around the winter.”

However, for those not waiting on FEMA, a non-profit called Hope Crisis has promised to stay with the city for the next three to five years, helping rebuild people’s homes that were lost to the fire, for just the cost of materials.

“I feel so lucky every day that Hope Crisis has decided to make a commitment to our community,” Yeager said. “The hope is to build 60 to 80 homes over the next three to five years.”

The challenges will be difficult for those deciding to tough it out and stay in Happy Camp without a home. But for them, the city of Happy Camp will always be their home.

“I do see Happy Camp rebuilding to something better than what it was,” Jones said. “It’s a paradise, honestly, and it still is to me. I can see the growth coming back.”

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