Javier shows a photo of where his house used to be in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif.

When The Fires Came

Erin Stone
Apr 11, 2018 · 5 min read

Undocumented immigrants face a unique set of challenges when it comes to experiencing and rebuilding after the most devastating firestorm in California history

At about 1:45 am on October 9, Javier woke with a start. He thought he had heard an explosion. He ran to his backyard and the world was red.

Am I dreaming? He thought. When he saw his neighbors frantically carrying luggage to their cars, he knew it was an emergency. He woke his wife. We need to get out now. While she roused their son and some friends who had been staying with them, Javier gathered what he could. He collected his family’s identification information — their passports, his children’s Social Security cards — then grabbed his wife’s iPad and his Bible. He figured he’d come back in to get the family photo albums, but when he ran outside, there were embers falling from the sky. He told his family to leave the rest.

It took Javier’s family an hour to drive the four blocks from their home to the main road out of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. The houses along the street were burning around them. He could feel the heat of the flames.

About eight hours later, Javier and his family snuck past the barriers put up by the National Guard and returned to their home. It took them a while to find it — all of the street signs had melted. The Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 2,800 buildings in Santa Rosa; 1,500 of those were houses in Coffey Park according to recent state data. When Javier and his family got to their home, there was nothing to see but ash.

“Nothing left. Absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing,” Javier says, shaking his head as he sits in his car in the parking lot of a Starbucks in downtown Santa Rosa. “I told my wife, ‘We are going to rise again. Everything is material. It’s things we can recover after a while.’”

As they looked at the remains of their home, Javier’s crying wife asked him, “But what about our situation? Who is going to help?”

Rebuilding after the fire is more complicated for Javier’s family than for many others: He and his wife don’t have legal immigration status. Javier, a 51-year-old salesman, came on a visa from Honduras in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch destroyed his business. He had planned earn enough money to pay off his house and then return home. But by the mid-2000s, gang violence in Honduras had exploded. He decided to bring his family to the U.S.

His sons, now 20 and 25, qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but there are no U.S. citizens or permanent residents in Javier’s household. That means they cannot receive long-term federal aid to help them rebuild. (Due to his family’s immigration status, Javier asked that only his first name is used in this article.)

State disaster aid is a little more flexible for survivors without legal immigration status . Households can receive short-term food assistance through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program regardless of family members’ immigration status. Emergency medical care is also covered. California law requires that public employees do not ask disaster survivors for unnecessary documentation or information, such as immigration status, when determining whether they are eligible for aid. For example, most state childcare assistance programs are available to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

There are an estimated 20,000 people without legal status in Sonoma County, according to Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz Center in Sonoma, which provides education, financial, and health resources for undocumented people. Many undocumented people who were evacuated from the fireshave been reluctant to go to shelters or ask for help because they fear that their information may be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Local officials in Sonoma and Napa countiesstated that they would not check immigration status at evacuation shelters. Five days after the fires broke out, ICE released a statement saying that it would suspend all non-criminal operations in the areas affected by the North Bay fires.

Despite ICE’s pledge, “people did not come to the shelters until two or three days later,” says Rafael Vasquez, a faculty advisor forthe Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan and the Undocumented Students Union at Santa Rosa Junior College. “We were seeing individuals coming in the middle of the night asking if they could get a sweater or hot meal, saying they had been sleeping in the parking lot of Walmart, or literally in the vineyards.” Vasquez and his students organized volunteers to drive 13 trucks worth of supplies to the people who were camping in Doran Regional Park.

The fear of deportation has made some undocumented immigrants reluctant to even apply for aid that they may be eligible for. Javier has decided against applying for any state or federal aid, both out of trepidation and pride. “This new situation that we are in, that’s more frightening than losing our house,” Javier says, referring to the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. “That’s our fear, that they will go behind you and try to take advantage of the situation. There are people that don’t want us here, with bad intentions. You never know. That’s why we try to be careful.”

Javier gets a text from his older son: “Buenos dias padre amado.” Good morning beloved father. His son texts him every morning with that greeting, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. Javier smiles as he talks about his son’s achievements, and how he will be graduating this year with a mechanical engineering degree.

“I just want to have a good life here,” Javier sighs. “A safe life here, with my kids, my wife. Regardless if you are white or black or yellow or brown or whatever. The skin disappears when the fire comes. Hopefully the government will understand that.”

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Funds and Services on the Ground Compiled by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR): Links to funds available and organizations in the region to support

Other resources for Immigrants Affected by Disasters: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/oir/Documents/DISASTER%20AID%20RESOURCES%20FOR%20IMMIGRANTS.pdf

Major Benefits Programs Available to Immigrants in California: https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/cal-benefits-table.pdf

Guide to Disaster Assistant Services for Immigrant Californians: http://www.cdss.ca.gov/Portals/13/DisasterAssistanceGuideforImmigrantCaliforniansFinal.pdf?ver=2017-10-24-121156-427

Erin Stone

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longform creative nonfiction multimedia journalist. National Geographic Young Explorer. Currently at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.