On Nov. 8, Tami Morris was so busy at work that she hadn’t heard of Northern California’s devastating Camp fire until her sister told her to check the news. By the next morning, she had found images of the burned-out home in the town of Paradise where her 79-year-old mother, Vivian Fahlgren, lived with her two cats, Darla and Corby.
Morris, who lives almost 3,000 miles away in Audubon, Pennsylvania, spent the morning calling shelters and law enforcement offices near Paradise, trying to find out if her mom was OK. Her mother had never had a cellphone and stayed relatively isolated from her neighbors. Morris couldn’t get through to anyone who had seen her or heard of her whereabouts.
Finally, after hours of calls, Morris saw that her mom had been accounted for on the Red Cross website, but she had no idea where she was or how to find her. The Red Cross told her three separate times that her mother had been moved to the “urgent list” of people to find, but still, no one could give her any information.
Then, on Saturday, more than a week after the fire wiped out Paradise and its surrounding towns, Morris’ aunt Dianne saw a HuffPost story about the evacuees displaced by the wildfire.
One of those evacuees was Fahlgren ― with Darla and Corby in tow.
Morris contacted HuffPost via email. “Looking for my mother, Vivian Fahlgren, fire victim,” the email subject line read. She asked for details that could confirm that her mother was, in fact, at the East Ave Church shelter in Chico. With the number of deceased and missing people fluctuating almost constantly, she had reason to be skeptical.
“Is this for real or not?” Morris wondered when she saw the description of her mother in the article. “Sometimes you don’t know what to trust, and there’s so much conflicting information about who’s died and who’s missing.”
But I was able to confirm that Fahlgren was safe and well in the shelter after a brief exchange. “Oh my God … that was such a relief,” Morris said. “I felt so helpless here being so far away.”
On Monday, I went back to the East Ave Church shelter to tell Fahlgren that her daughter was looking for her. Fahlgren said she’d only just been given a cellphone and was waiting for some privacy in the crowded shelter before giving her daughter a call.
Her eyes welled up with tears.
“It’s just … it’s going to be an emotional conversation,” she said.
Growing up, Morris and her two siblings spent holidays and school breaks in the wooded town of Paradise, visiting their grandparents, who owned a home in the foothills for years. She helped her mother settle into her own home in the same town six or so years ago. She can’t imagine what the town looks like now.
“I’ve seen pictures, but I just can’t imagine the whole town being burned down,” Morris said.
But despite the shock, she’s ready to hear from her mom when her mom is ready.
“That’s why my mom hasn’t called me … It would make it too real. There are things she maybe doesn’t want to have to tell me. I don’t know what to expect. I just want to let her know I’m here for her.”