At Starlet Bridal in Santa Rosa, owner Allison Hargave-Barnard couldn’t help but notice the unusual intensity of the mother who came in with her bride-to-be daughter to buy a wedding dress.
“You could tell there was some heartache there,” said Hargave-Barnard. As her sales associate greeted the women – who also were accompanied by the future mother-in-law – the boutique owner kept her focus on the mother, trying to pick up on the conversation.
“I could tell by the mother’s face that she was especially determined to make this day as pleasant as possible for her daughter,” she said.
Then Hargave-Barnard found out why: Both Lynne Lemon and her daughter Rachel Lemon had lost their homes in the massive Valley fire in nearby Lake County.
Rachel had a scheduled appointment to come in and look at dresses. She was going to cancel until her fiance insisted that she keep it – because their wedding must go on despite the devastation they suffered.
After hearing about their losses, Hargave-Barnard approached the mother and daughter. She told them not to worry about the costs of the wedding gown. “The dress is on me,” she said, bursting into tears. Then they all cried.
The spontaneous scene in the Santa Rosa bridal boutique provided just a small glimpse of people stepping up to help in an outpouring of compassion for victims of two ravenous blazes – the Valley fire and the Butte fire – that have consumed more than 145,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and claimed several lives.
Not only did Hargave-Barnard see that Rachel Lemon got a bridal dress but she called friends and fellow merchants in Sonoma County to pitch in to give Rachel a wedding beyond anything she could have dreamed.
Elsewhere, Aria Simpson and her mother, Teresa Fogolini of Bodega Bay, took it upon themselves to help save 18 camels stranded at Sacred Camel Gardens, a spiritual retreat near Middletown in Lake County where visitors are taught how to live in companionship with the animals.
During the fire, herdsman Stuart Camps guided the camels from one safe area to another as flames devoured a feed barn, miles of fencing and the landscape around them. Still with the herd, he now counts on help from others to care for the animals, and donations are pouring in because of Simpson, Fogolini and their crowd-funding page that publicizes the animals’ plight.
Meanwhile, senior citizen Donna Stokes, a part-time church administrator in San Andreas, is among scores of local residents pitching to help those affected by the Butte fire. Stokes doesn’t consider her contributions – such as helping to serve a spaghetti dinner or joining in to sort out and disperse donated supplies – as anything remarkable.
But they are if you consider the fact that her own home was destroyed by fire a week ago.
The two devastating blazes – the Valley fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties and the Butte fire in Calaveras and Amador – stand as the ninth and 14th most destructive in state history. But communities and countless citizens are responding, helping people – and their animals.
These are three such stories.
Caring for camels
In a wooded mountain basin above Middletown in Lake County, the Sacred Camel Gardens was the creation of a New York-born spiritual teacher who became known as Adi Da Samraj. He died in 2008 but his camel gardens live on, celebrated by followers of his movement known as Adidam.
There, for two decades, herdsman Stuart Camps has helped run a retreat where weekend visitors come and enjoy fellowship with the animals – including twin-humped camels named Zazoo and Baraka and K2.
“They learn to treat camels in a consensual way, where everything evolves around the camels’ habits and creating a relationship of trust,” he said.
But there was nothing consensual about the Valley fire, which rained embers onto the pasture lands for the 18 camels. “The fire was all around us. It took over the whole valley. It was pretty harrowing,” said Camps, who, with two others – Sara Tourtellette and Craig Love – secured the camels, plus six horses and six llamas.
Camps kept the camels moving, constantly heading to safer ground. “I just stayed calm and drew them in,” he said.
Aria Simpson, 29, was vacationing in Yellowstone National Park when her mother, Teresa Fogolini, phoned her to tell her about the fire. Simpson had grown up near the animals in Lake County and worked with them on weekends while attending graduate school in Berkeley in acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Working together thousands of miles apart, the mother and daughter got on their computers and collaborated on an online donations site: “Valley Fire Camel Rescue” (gofundme.com/camelrescue). “Help support the Sacred Camel herd and all the men and women who have fought to save their lives,” the site said.
Firefighters brought in emergency water for the camels, which are being kept on a gravely area of the sanctuary site. And $15,000 has poured in through the website to help pay for tons of hay, future water storage as well as a replacement barn and fencing. Some 60 bales of hay are already on order. A few local residents have gotten past fire lines to get the first emergency feedings to the animals.
“I can’t put it into words,” Camps said. “I’m just feeling deep gratitude and thinking of everyone who risked their lives to save them.”
Food for the soul
Donna Stokes, 76, says she is just happy to be surrounded by so many people doing good things.
The part-time administrator at San Andreas Community Covenant Church has helped out as her church has become a rallying spot for people bringing in food, clothing and diapers, and otherwise looking to assist fire victims. “There is no measure of how deep the support goes,” she said.
Stokes takes calls from businesses offering help, such as Lowe’s Home Improvement, which trucked in palettes of water for parched residents who fled the Butte fire. She interacts with residents – “the best cooks in the nation,” she says – who stop by with home-baked delights.
This week, Stokes helped out in the kitchen and was a server at the San Andreas town center, where the weekly church meal was moved so families displaced by the fire could enjoy a spaghetti dinner. “I think it has helped me emotionally,” she said. “There is just a value in people coming together.”
She feels that way after escaping as flames raced through Calaveras County’s Mountain Ranch area. She was making her prized apple butter at the time, only to have to abandon it mid-batch. She grabbed some clothes, her miniature schnauzer Penny and her rescue kitty, Cue Tip, before leaving. Her house was destroyed.
Now staying with a friend, she exults in seeing community members and “complete strangers” coming out to help at the church.
“How I will feel tomorrow or the next day? I don’t know,” Stokes said. “It may all hit me. But I’m here for the duration, as long as I am needed. That’s how friends and communities pull together. I feel blessed by the power of the love.”
More bridal gifts
Inspired by the emotional power of seeing an anguished mother and daughter try to normalize their lives by shopping for a wedding dress, Allison Hargave-Barnard felt driven to mobilize her community.
Lynne Lemon had lost her family home in the Valley fire in Lake County. The home of her daughter, Rachel Lemon, and Rachel’s fiance Daniel Tyrrell, also burned down as they fled the fire.
Rachel was in a dressing room at Starlet Bridal when Hargave-Barnard made the offer of the free bridal dress to Lynn Lemon and mother-in-law-to-be Patricia Tyrrell. Rachel emerged wearing a possible gown for her spring wedding when she saw all of the women crying.
“I thought I can’t look that bad – lol,” she later wrote on her Facebook page. “I was then told my dress would be complimentary and to choose whichever dress I liked. I was shocked and then started to cry as well!”
The sense of shock only built as sales associate Irene Thompson helped Rachel with her dress – a Maggie Sottero design with ivory lace and pewter accents – and Hargave-Barnard got on the phone and started calling friends and merchants throughout Sonoma County.
Soon ER Sawyer Jewelers of Santa Rosa pledged a ring for the groom. Local photographer Rick Oullette and harpist Susan Weinstein volunteered their wedding services. Patty Cakes Catering and Sift Dessert Bar offered a wedding cake and other confections.
Grohe Florist pledged flower arrangements. The Tuxedo Gallery promised tuxes for the groom and groomsmen. Hair stylist Jennifer Cadd pledged coiffures for the bride and bridesmaids. Three people volunteered to be wedding disc jockeys.
Meanwhile, local yoga instructor Michaela Codding offered special yoga and wine tasting sessions to help Rachel Lemon relax and begin to transition from fire evacuee to bride.
“I would just like to give her a break, a little peace of mind and a little bit of fun with the girls, even for a moment,” Codding said. “I don’t think you can forget about losing your house. But this at least can offer some distraction.”
Said Rachel in her Facebook post: “You are all so special and made me feel amazing!”
Hargave-Barnard said offers of more wedding services are still coming in.
“So many people are calling. I am up to my neck keeping up,” she said. “It’s gotten so wonderful.”