Her Paradise home destroyed, student perseveres for town’s most vulnerable

Friends Elisabeth Earley and Isabel Emmons are Berkeley students whose communities were in the Camp Fire

Friends Elisabeth Earley (right) and Isabel Emmons grew up together in Butte County. The 2018 Camp Fire destroyed the Earley family’s property. Earley says she appreciates Emmons’ personality and thoughtfulness “even more than before” the disaster. Earley has “gumption and grit,” says Emmons. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

A fundraiser for elderly survivors of November’s deadly Camp Fire who have dementia, this Sunday’s 5K “Race to Remember” on Sproul Plaza is graduating senior Elisabeth Earley’s idea — and a perfect fit for the eight-year-old Bears for Elder Welfare group she runs as president.

“Paradise was pretty well-known as a place for senior citizens to retire, due to its relatively low cost of living and natural beauty,” says Earley, 21, a UC Berkeley political science and Latin American literature major who graduates in May. “Whether they lost their houses or their rooms at a facility, the fire was particularly traumatic for people with dementia, who also lost their sense of stability. We want to raise money for their families, for their care.”

Earley understands that trauma all too well, as her family’s picturesque Paradise property also was reduced to rubble by California’s most destructive wildfire. In and around the small town of Paradise, more than 80 people died, and nine out of 10 buildings burned down.

Recently, Earley joined her parents to search one last time — as bulldozers continue to clear the town’s rubble — through the remains of their two-story house, barn, garage and acreage on Lovely Lane. They mainly found shards of pottery, beach glass, a painted rock and some marbles.

The Earley's home was reduced to rubble.

The Earley family returned to Paradise on March 30 to say goodbye to their Lovely Lane property, which was reduced to rubble. (Photo by Elisabeth Earley)

“Poking through the ashes was our goodbye,” says Earley. “Identifying stuff and talking about what they were. Talking about the good times we had there. It was my childhood place, where I wanted to get married, to bring grandchildren to my parents, a place for my parents to retire.”

Miraculously, Earley found a special keepsake — a ceramic angel Christmas ornament she’d been given as a baby. “I asked my mom to hold onto it for future Christmases,” she says. “All I wanted was to find something I could pass on.”

Isabel Emmons, 21, a childhood friend of Earley’s, says Earley and her family are all about passing along what life has given them. They shared their barn for art projects and games, handed out homemade beef jerky and welcomed friends to visit their farm animals.

Elisabeth Earley's house before the fire

The Earleys’ house in Paradise before the fire. The pond was a favorite spot for family and friends to swim, feed the fish, listen to music and relax. (Photo by Diane LaValley)

“Growing up, I always thought that if Armegeddon came, we would go to the Earley’s house,” quips Emmons, an interdisciplinary studies major at Berkeley who also graduates next month. “They were the center of the community.”

Elisabeth Earley’s father, Joe, an attorney with a special focus on elder law, “cares a lot for the most vulnerable in our community, and about respect and justice,” says his daughter. Today, he is on the legal team that’s suing PG & E over the wildfires.

“Hopefully, with each resolved case, punitive damages will help encourage a more respectful and healthful environment for elders,” says Elisabeth Earley. “The legal process can be justice for those who’ve suffered the effects of a profit-based health care system.”

Earley’s parents currently rent housing in Chico and have visited their Paradise property regularly, especially to check on their flock of sheep, which survived in inferno.

Emmons’ family home in neighboring Magalia wasn’t touched; her mom’s cough, from the smoke, is a reminder of the fire, she says, as is the family’s wrestle with their good luck amid others’ loss.

Items found in the rubble of Elisabeth Earley's grandmother's house in Paradise.

Earley wore these ash-covered boots to search for jewelry and family heirlooms at her fraternal grandmother’s house, which also burned down. (Photo by Elisabeth Earley)

Earley admits the fire still has her “on edge,” as she realized a few weeks ago when a friend texted her in class that a fire had broken out in Berkeley on Delaware Street, where Earley lives with friends.

“I heard zero of the lecture after that,” says Earley.  “For the rest of the day, I was shaky.”

But she says she’s learned that “it’s important to talk about your feelings, to get to know yourself better,” to work through tragedy, which can compound the stress students already feel at an academically-challenging university like Berkeley.

Earley says part of her self-care includes remaining in Berkeley another year. Emmons plans to do the same.

“Graduating from Cal is one more change I’ll be going through,” Earley explains, “and, kind of like the seniors in Paradise with dementia, I, too, have counted on the consistency and stability of my life here in Berkeley.”

She’ll spend time applying to Ph.D. programs in political science and continuing the research she’s doing with a colleague on political polarization in social media and the spreading of misinformation. Emmons will explore job and graduate school options.

Elisabeth Earley's father greets a new lamb in the family's flock.

Joe Earley greets the last lamb of his family’s flock to be born this season. The sheep, pregnant before the fire, survived. (Photo by Elisabeth Earley)

For Earley, another part of healing is helping Paradise while she helps herself. “While everyone grieves differently,” she says, “I find that serving others gives me some direction and purpose; it reminds me of the most important things I have, which are family, friends and community.”

Someday, Earley says, her parents will rebuild on their Paradise property. If their sheep are any indication of the future, the Earleys witnessed a sign of rebirth on March 30, the same day last month that they combed one last time through what was left of their home.

“The sheep, which were pregnant during the fires, had lambs this spring. The day we said goodbye to the house,” says Earley, “I got to watch the last lamb be born.”