California

Camp Fire destroyed their Paradise home. They finally got a new one — fully-furnished

After Camp Fire destroys their Paradise home, this family arrives in Clovis with what matters most

The Camp Fire took most of their possessions and their Paradise home. And after living in temporary housing for months, a family finally settles in Clovis with furnishings sold to them from their home's previous owners.
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The Camp Fire took most of their possessions and their Paradise home. And after living in temporary housing for months, a family finally settles in Clovis with furnishings sold to them from their home's previous owners.

Seven-year-old Annie Ta really likes her new bedroom.

She excitedly invited some recent visitors to check it out as soon as they opened the front door to her family’s new home in Clovis.

The house is a significant milestone in her young life, promising more stability following seven months of displacement after the Camp Fire destroyed her family’s home in Paradise. It was among more than 13,000 homes to burn in the Northern California wildfire that killed 85 people in November.

The Clovis couple who sold Annie’s family their new home were happy to sell it fully-furnished. The buyers and sellers both called that a blessing.

Mikhai Ta and Stephanie Fritz-Ta were eager to get their daughters, Annie and 9-year-old Ellie Ta, settled back into a normal life as quickly as possible.

Bob and Sue Dowell were downsizing, moving from their four-bedroom home in Monte Verdi Estates near Friant to an apartment at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens, a senior living community in Fresno.

“I actually said, ‘Wouldn’t it just be a prayer answered if someone came and said, ‘I love it and I love everything in it and want to buy everything,’ ” Sue Dowell said. “And that’s what happened.”

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Mikhai Ta, his wife Stephanie Fritz-Ta, and daughters Ellie Ta, 9, left, and Annie Ta, 7, stand in the backyard of their new home in Clovis on Tuesday, June 19, 2019. The family lost most of their possessions after evacuating from their home in Paradise, CA before it burned in last year’s wildfire. After months of living in temporary housing the family settled in Clovis where they were able to buy the former owners’ furnishings. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Their realtor, Joe Sciarrone, shared a story about the sale on his Facebook page.

“In the end, we ended up selling the house fully-furnished, right down to the TVs, washer/dryer, fridge, most everything in the kitchen drawers, pictures on the walls, even Christmas decorations!” Sciarrone said. “It was as move-in ready as a house can get. The buyers were ecstatic, and the sellers relieved and happy to have helped this young couple start the next chapter of their family’s life.

“There were tears shed on both sides for two entirely different reasons. One side sad for having to leave the home that had helped raise a family. The other, happy tears for all the obvious reasons. They now had a new place to call home.”

Mikhai and Stephanie decided to buy the house this spring, four days after it was listed for sale. The family moved in completely last week, after Ellie and Annie finished their school year in Chico. The girls will start second and fourth grades this fall at Fresno Adventist Academy.

Surviving wildfire

The family’s pets were acting noticeably different the morning the Camp Fire started. Princess the cat’s tail was bushy with fright, and Fluffy the dog was barking.

Stephanie looks back on that now with pride, calling Fluffy her “Lassie,” the rescue dog. Stephanie noticed a smoky, orange sky soon after.

New to the area, she thought it could have been a volcano eruption at first. Teachers at Ellie and Annie’s school informed her of the wildfire later that morning.

School was canceled that day. Stephanie said the teachers looked afraid. It was enough to convince her they needed to leave.

Stephanie and Mikhai, who was home from his work as a dentist, loaded their daughters and pets into the car, along with some important documents and Mikhai’s favorite cello, and left Paradise before anyone told them they should.

Unfamiliar with wildfire evacuation protocol in the area, they were among the first to leave Paradise and yet they got out just in time.

“It was really scary for a lot of people,” Stephanie said. “We feel almost too lucky that we didn’t go through that. … We felt like we were being overly cautious but it ended up that we weren’t being overly cautious.”

The family had recently moved to Paradise from Washington. They’d only been in their new home for three and a half weeks, not even long enough to swim in their swimming pool for the first time.

Of all they lost to fire, they miss their collection of beloved musical instruments most of all.

Their house burned but a detached garage survived. It fortunately contained some important family mementos, including old letters and Mikhai and Stephanie’s wedding photos.

‘We’re excited to call this home’

The Adventist Health clinic in Paradise where Mikhai worked was also destroyed. Mikhai got a job offer early this year at a new Adventist Health Medical Office in Fowler that opened this month, which brought the family to Clovis.

Mikhai said that “we’re excited to call this home.”

The family previously lived out of hotel rooms before getting a rental.

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Mikhai Ta plays his cello for his wife Stephanie Fritz-Ta and daughters Annie Ta, 7, left, and Ellie Ta, 9, at their new home in Clovis on Tuesday, June 19, 2019. The cello was one of the few items taken when the family evacuated from their home in Paradise, CA before it burned in last year’s wildfire. After months of living in temporary housing the family settled in Clovis where they were able to buy the former owners’ furnishings. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Homeowner’s insurance helped pay for their new home. They love their nice new neighbors, proximity to outdoor adventures in the Sierra Nevada, and central location for visiting other family members. They’re hosting a family reunion next month.

They also love the green belt behind the house and their home’s Mediterranean style, with high ceilings, archways, artistic touches and lots of natural light.

Plus, Ellie says, “Fluffy has way more room in the backyard.”

Their home in Paradise was “beautiful but almost too big,” Stephanie said. She and her husband said the wildfire helped them simplify their lives and focus more on what matters most.

“Relationships with your family and friends are more important than material things,” Stephanie said. “And even if those things are gone, you still have what matters most.”

Sue and Bob Dowell wish them every happiness in their former home of 17 years.

“We loved it there,” Sue Dowell said. “It was a beautiful neighborhood. I truly hope that they enjoy it as much as we did and are as happy there as we were.”

Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.
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