November 1, 2022 Surviving the Glass Fire: how Catholic Charities is helping the Henson’s recover
On September 27th, 2020, Jessica Henson watched her TV all day, keeping up with news of the Glass Fire slowly spreading west from where it ignited in Napa County before dawn. She saw smoke rising in the distance from where she lived in one of three houses, all occupied by family members on Los Alamos Road in eastern Santa Rosa.
“I had just been watching it all day long. And when it started getting dark, that’s when the fire came over onto the Sonoma County side,” says Henson. “It was basically in our backyard. The whole sky lit up with fire.”
Henson called her brother, who lived in one of the three homes on the family’s nearly 7-acres, and told him: “We have to get out of here.”
They all piled into their vehicles with their animals and fled as the fire headed their way.
“We didn’t know that the bottom part of our mountain was on fire, so we actually drove through the fire,” says Henson. “Our main house, my brother’s house, and a rental we had on the property, they all burned.”
Henson’s family had lived on the property for at least 100 years; her great-grandfather built the main house in 1920, the same home her mother had grown up in. The family land, which also included stables and a kennel, was gone in a flash. And unfortunately, none of the homes were insured.
Henson and her family members—including her elderly mother—made their way to the nearest evacuation center, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. There was no space available for them, as they had taken three dogs and thirteen cats with them when they evacuated.
Next, they headed to the Petaluma Fairgrounds, where Henson, her husband, and her mother were able to stay while others went to a nearby hotel. They were only there for two days when the evacuation site closed.
“We’re like, ‘Okay, so where do we go now?’,” says Henson.
They returned to Santa Rosa, and Henson and her husband stayed in her brother’s RV at the veteran’s building for about four days until that evacuation site also closed. The animals were temporarily placed in a shelter, and her mother and sister went to a hotel.
Eventually, they found themselves with other survivors of the 67,000-acre blaze that destroyed roughly 1,500 structures, at an outreach event hosted at Maria Carrillo High School. There, they connected with FEMA and with a Disaster Case Manager from Catholic Charities. Initially, FEMA helped the family with financial support to cover rent in temporary housing, and Catholic Charities provided gift cards and other essentials.
“When my help with FEMA ran out, that’s when Catholic Charities really kicked in to help me,” says Henson.
As a result of years of fires impacting our most vulnerable, Catholic Charities created an “Unmet Needs” fund, partially supported with grants from Community Foundation’s Resilience Fund. The program helps support people like Henson and her family; people who are un- or underinsured, can’t access other recovery support, aren’t eligible for FEMA reimbursement, and more.
According to Catholic Charities, most survivors, especially the survivors of the 2020 fires, lived in highly rural areas, which added complexity to providing recovery services. Henson and her family were no exception.
A Disaster Case Manager at Catholic Charities worked together with Henson and her family to develop a recovery plan. The organization presented Henson’s case to the Unmet Needs Committee—a group of funders, including Community Foundation Sonoma County—for financial assistance to help the family purchase a mobile home and cover the foundation, delivery, installation, and other related costs. Their Disaster Case Manager was also able to utilize funding from Community Foundation Sonoma County to assist with rental and utility assistance while they awaited their new home and to purchase laundry appliances for the new home.
“They’re helping us get the house,” says Henson. “And getting the contractor to help us get the house put on the property, and everything set up for it.”
Catholic Charities says their Disaster Case Management team works diligently to support fire and other disaster survivors in returning to a stable living situation that is similar to or better than their pre-disaster situation. Henson’s family is just one of 43 households they helped who were impacted during the 2019 and 2020 fire seasons.
Two years after the Glass Fire, Henson is still in a temporary rental but recently met with contractors on her family’s property to begin building the foundation. Once the mobile home is ready, she’ll live there with her mom, sister, and her husband. They’re just a few steps away from returning to the land her family has lived on for generations.
“My family is so appreciative of what Catholic Charities has done,” says Henson. “If we didn’t have their help, we would probably be out on the streets.”
Story by Dani Burlison, photos by Erik Castro.