Family forgotten among those who lost homes
A Carson City report lists 17 private homes as being destroyed by the Waterfall fire July 14 and 15, but Mary and Cyril Ouilette know otherwise.
“It wasn’t a million-dollar home, but it was all we had,” said Mary, 57, of the doublewide mobile home she and Cyril owned and lived in at 2800 Kings Canyon Road.
For the past 12 years the couple served from their home as caretakers for the Quill Water Treatment Plant. In exchange for caretaking, they received a million-dollar view from the city-owned property on which it sat.
Now, when her shift ends as a cashier at Carson-Tahoe Hospital, Mary finds herself having to remember her home isn’t there anymore.
She never expected that outcome.
“It didn’t look like the fire was really doing anything. This had been like the third or fourth one since we’ve been there. We thought they’ll have that out in no time,” she recalled. Her confidence was bolstered by the fact that a helicopter was working the fire by 7 a.m. Mary watched from her kitchen window as a chopper filled its bucket from the plant’s ponds. Then she went to work.
Watching from Mountain Street as the fire grew, Mary decided about 11:30 a.m. to head home “just to be safe.” Cyril was nearby working his day job at the plant.
Mary was home at 1 p.m. “when all hell broke loose,” she said.
“The trees just erupted like matchsticks. They just exploded. And when they did, the fire went around the ridge,” she said. “When that thing erupted Cyril came running over and said, ‘We gotta get the cars out of here. That thing has crested the top of the mountain.'”
They moved their vehicle to the water plant. Mary grabbed her two dogs and a cat, but a second cat, Smutty, ran under the house. She was unable to get him.
Cyril’s co-workers Mark and Joe came to offer help.
“They asked us what we wanted to get out of the house,” she said. They grabbed a camelback trunk of pictures, a cedar chest, two footlockers and a change of clothes. They raced out of the canyon along with firefighters, fleeing the inferno.
Mary found out the following day her home didn’t survive. As she and her daughter sorted through what remained of her life’s possessions, a firefighter arrived and offered his condolences for her loss.
“I just want you to know that your house meant no less to us than any other house on this hill,” she recalled him saying of her modest home. Mary understands, she said. “They saved five or six others and that makes me feel a little better.”
This year hasn’t been an easy on for the Ouilettes. Cyril was diagnosed with stomach cancer and in January he received treatment; doctors removed his stomach. His brother died in June and Mary’s brother, who came to help during Cyril’s illness, was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after he left. Her other brother is ill with emphysema.
“It’s like I don’t want to turn the page anymore,” she said. “I almost want to crawl in a hole and draw the curtain.”
Cyril doesn’t appear to be allowing that.
“Earlier in the week I was going through the ashes and it was a little overwhelming,” he said. “But then I said, ‘OK, it’s time to take care of business.’ We’ll be fine.”
Where they will live is still up in the air. Their insurance isn’t so great. The adjuster offered them a replacement home that was a year older than their 1979 Fleetwood with the new carpets and storm windows. Another adjuster asked Mary as the two stood before her dust pile if she had any receipts for the property she was claiming.
“I told her there’s a burnt rake over there, you’re more than welcoming to dig through the ashes.”
As Cyril did just that he recovered a belt buckle his father made from a Carson City dollar. On Thursday when Mary met him at the property he proudly handed her a red glass jar, damaged but intact with its lid still on. It was one piece left from her collection.
They never found Smutty, but they still put food out for him. They’ve cleared the skeleton of the mobile home from the land and have filled a Dumpster they rented with the mangled and blackened appliances. Cyril said the city is phasing out on-site caretakers, so they won’t be putting anything back on this property.
But one thing the fire didn’t take was their memories.
“We loved it here. The scenery. The deer. The wild animals. It was so peaceful. It was a great place to live,” Mary said. “We’ll miss it.”
Contact F.T. Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1213.