JESUP — After their community was incinerated in California’s deadliest wildfire, one family has decided their next move will take them far away from Paradise.
Brian and Rachel Bockover are loading their children, Michael and Aria, into the family van tonight along with a cat and two dogs for a cross-country trip to Jesup, where they plan to live for at least the next year.
“So, we should be in Iowa by Wednesday or Thursday,” Rachel said during a phone interview with The Courier. “I’m really excited about the adventure and I really think this is going to be good.”
Rachel is the only member of the family who has been to Iowa. She came to Jesup for the wedding of her best friend, Celia Even — who pushed the idea of the family relocating and is behind efforts to gather donations for when they arrive. The Buchanan County community has stepped up by contributing clothing that will get the family through the winter months.
And the Bockover’s have already arranged to rent a house in their adopted city.
“We actually found a home right across the street from the school,” said Brian. “Pretty fortunate in that regard.”
According to the couple, that good fortune has extended throughout the ordeal of losing their home and its aftermath.
The so-called Camp Fire burned more than 153,000 acres in northern California before being contained last week, news reports said. The fire’s official death toll stands at 88 people with another 196 missing. It swept across heavily wooded Paradise Nov. 8, destroying nearly all homes in the community of 27,000 people.
With a two-hour commute to Sacramento, Brian had left for work at 4 a.m. in his company truck that Thursday morning. He worked on a directional drilling crew building underground telecommunications networks. Rachel dropped off Michael, 14, and Aria, who is almost 6, for school at 7:30 a.m. and then headed to her job as the manager of an H&R Block office 30 minutes to the north in Chico.
“It was like a normal everyday,” said Rachel. However, driving to school, she could see the distant orange glow from a wildfire and while leaving the school noticed smoke in her rear view mirror. She hadn’t heard official warnings at that point and so didn’t anticipate any danger.
Before arriving at work, she got a panicky call from her son about the wildfire. Rachel assured him if action was needed, she would be contacted. Upon arrival at work, she learned that a precautionary evacuation had been ordered.
“I got in my car and drove as fast as I could go,” she recounted, passing a sheriff’s vehicle on the way. Upon arriving in Paradise, “it was crazy, there were people everywhere.” And it was pitch black — “8:30 a.m. looked like 8:30 at night,” said Rachel.
She and the kids went to their house, loading up a couple laundry baskets of clothes and gathering the pets. By this point, she “could see the cars piling up on the road.” She talked to Brian about that time, who told them to just leave.
After Brian learned about the evacuation, he and a co-worker who also lived in Paradise started heading towards home. Later, on the phone, he scolded Rachel, who admitted to not being sure that she had locked the door of their house. He was worried about looters.
“I couldn’t believe my wife didn’t lock the house,” he said. “I thought I was going to come home in two days.”
By the time Rachel and the children had driven about 20 minutes towards Chico, she already understood that they wouldn’t be going back. Brian realized the same thing through reports from his co-worker’s wife.
“The fire was 15 miles out from the house when I initially left work, which any other time would take two to three days to get that far,” said Brian, typically allowing firefighters to contain it. However, “within 30 minutes, it was in our back yard.”
Brian reunited with his family in Chico, by which point it wasn’t possible for them to return to Paradise.
“The next day, we found out our house was completely gone,” said Rachel. Still, they’ve “been very lucky and blessed,” she insisted. They’ve received various donations and family members set up an online Go Fund Me page, which is more than halfway to its $5,000 goal.
“We were able to get into a rental about a week after the fire here in Chico,” Rachel explained, while others are still living in hotels.
“There was 100 applicants for every rental property,” added Brian. “We’re just lucky to have a roof over our head.” He noted, though, that their apartment building is in an area which noticeably includes a lot of rentals for college students.
“Ideally, you don’t want to raise your kids where they’re having keggers and doing burnouts in the parking lot,” he said.
It would be challenging for the family to find other accommodations at this point and, possibly, for a long time. Housing options are extremely limited with the influx of wildfire refugees.
Brian said there are “bidding wars” for any homes on the market, with asking prices rising “$50,000-$70,000 above the listing price originally. They’re basically going back and forth on who wants to pay more.” He expects the same thing to happen in Paradise eventually.
The family home in Paradise was rented. But whether they continued renting or decided to buy one of the rebuilt homes in that community, they would be waiting a long time. “They’re saying it could take two to three years before Paradise is even livable,” said Rachel.
For her, it’s time to move on. “I’m ready to be back in the routine,” she said, where school events and family dinners are the focus. “I feel like, staying here, that’s not going to happen for a very long time.”
Rachel said she and Even, who moved to Iowa 14 years ago, have “been best friends since our sophomore year in high school.” But Even has always wanted her to live closer.
“Celia’s been trying to get Rachel to move to Iowa for years,” said Brian. “She called the day (the fire) happened and said ‘When are you coming up?’ It finally took a fire, but we’re moving there.”
Of course, there are still plenty of friends — not to mention family — who will remain back in California.
“For me it’s been a really hard decision to leave our friends and family,” said Rachel. “But I know in my heart this is the best thing for my kids.”
Brian has a slightly different perspective. “I think between the schools and housing opportunities — but especially the schools — it was an easy choice,” he said. Brian is also looking forward to renewing acquaintances with extended family members who live several hours away in northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.
After arriving in Jesup, the family will still have a long road to recovery following such a traumatic loss — even though it was confined to possessions.
“I don’t even know how to explain the hole or loss that you feel from that,” said Rachel. But talking to the property manager last week about the Jesup house they will be moving into may have inched them toward recovery.
“The feeling that we had was ‘we have a home again,’” said Rachel.
WATERLOO — The nation lost a former president Friday night, but Kathy McCoy of Waterloo lost the “good man” who employed her for several years.
For around eight years, McCoy served as part of George H.W. Bush’s advance team, helping to plan each detail of many of his campaigns, vice-presidential and presidential trips both inside and outside of the United States.
She learned Bush died at the age of 94 on Saturday morning, and said Saturday afternoon she was still trying to process the news.
“I am really just heartbroken,” McCoy said. “Every trip I saw him, he’d give me a big smile and wave, ‘Hi Kathy, how are things in Iowa?’
“Some people you think are larger than life, and I guess nobody is.”
McCoy was working for Donna Nelson in the 1980s when she first met then-Vice President Bush, in town to cut the ribbon on a new Chamber of Commerce building, McCoy said.
“(Nelson) asked me if I wanted to be on the advance team,” McCoy said. “I said, ‘Sure. What’s an advance team?’”
She found she loved the behind-the-scenes work, and Nelson advised her to apply for a job working for Bush, which she did.
“Six weeks later, I got a call from the vice president’s office asking if I could do an advance trip to Omaha,” McCoy said.
She would go on to help with planning for nearly all of Bush’s campaign trips and many of his later domestic and foreign trips as vice president and president. She’s been to Germany, Finland, Japan and the Florida Keys — one of her favorites.
“I would get calls — ‘Here’s where you’re going, here’s your ticket,’” McCoy said. “But really, I can’t think of one trip that I did not enjoy.
“You were beat — I worked from 16-18 hour days — but it was as much of a thrill today to look back on it as it was doing it. And I met so many nice people.”
Bush was one of them, she said.
“The very first time I met him, and every time after, he reminded me so much of my dad — and that’s the highest compliment I can give anybody,” McCoy said. “He was just such a kind, good, true person.
“Millions of people love him, and I love him, but I actually got to know him,” she added.
McCoy knows not everybody will have the same opinion of Bush, a Republican, based on his political policies and actions while in office. For McCoy, his legacy isn’t about that.
“His political side is one thing, and that’s I guess for the talking heads to determine,” she said. “From my perspective, the personal side, (it’s about) what a good, kind person he was. He would never intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings.
“He was just a good man. It doesn’t sound grand enough for him, but I don’t know how else to say it. He was an amazing man.”