4 Months After The Camp Fire: What It's Like For One Family Living In Paradise – Emily Holtom

Mar 14, 2019

Emily Holtom along with her children were new residents to Paradise, Calif before the Camp Fire hit the area.
Credit Ashley Bailey

Emily Holtom is a stay-at-home mom and owns one of the rare houses in Paradise that is still standing after the Camp Fire.


She, her husband, Spencer, their six kids and dog just moved here about nine months ago from Southern California for Spencer's job.



He's the superintendent at Oroville City Elementary School District.


That's a big life event for any family.


Then, the fire happened.


And four months later, the impact on the family is showing up in different ways.


"My 3-year-old daughter is very clingy -- if I go to the other room she gets worried," Emily said. "And when she plays with her dolls, she talks about 'my mom’s house burned down - did your mom’s house burn down?’”


The 3-year-old is Emily's youngest child.


Her oldest is in college.


She said one of the kids is having a hard time sleeping and sometimes lays on the floor of her bedroom because they are scared there's going to be another fire.


Worrying about her kids is one reason Emily has mixed emotions about staying in Paradise.


She and her family were able to return home a few days before Christmas.


All of their utilities are up and running again.


She feels lucky for that, but it's clear that she is hurting.


She is still adjusting to a new community and it's difficult to talk with her new friends in Paradise -- some of who are living in trailers -- about what she's going through.


"I have a house and they don’t. So I have to be careful about what I say and what I don't say because I'm in a pretty good situation where they really are not and a lot of them have lived here their whole life and now they’re moving away," she said.


Emily knows she and her family need to stay put for now, but thinking about the future is a huge unknown.


"I think I’m doing great and we’re all doing better and then the next day I’m like in this huge slump again," Emily said. "I’m having a breakdown thinking, what are we doing here? What is happening with this crazy life of ours?"


Emily said her kids are the same way.


One of her high-schoolers broke into tears in the car the other day because it's been difficult to move to a new place, make new friends and then watch them move away.


"And if my daughter were here, all of our blinds would be closed because she really does not like them open." Emily said.


Along with keeping the blinds closed at home to avoid looking at the debris that used to be their neighbor's houses, another big physical change in Emily's life is all of the driving she does every day.


"I used to typically go five minutes to pick up my kids from school and we’d stop at the park and play on the way home and we’d have a great time we’d be gone for 45 minutes and come home and make dinner and we’d be great," she said. "Today it will take me an hour and a half to go pick up kids."


On Monday, Emily went to go pick up her 9-year-old, who goes to school in Oroville, after a bus dropped him off at the fairgrounds in Chico.


She then went on to pick up her 13-year-old from Paradise Intermediate School, which has reopened in an old Orchard Supply Hardware store in Chico.


Emily often makes multiple trips to Chico from Paradise to take her kids to sports practices or to run errands.


She said she avoids going up Skyway to shop at some of the scattered businesses that have reopened in Paradise since the fire because it's too painful to see all the twisted metal and rubble that still hasn't been removed.


"I should be more supportive of our town, and it’s my goal - I’m going to be more supportive," Emily said. "But it’s really so depressing to drive through town. You’d think that it would get easier as you drive through Paradise, but every time I drive through it’s heart wrenching again. I know especially the first few times we drove through it, we cried. And it was hard to see and I think now we more hold our breath. I come home and I just feel sick inside. It's not ever any easier."  


Emily said she has not sought out help for her mental help.


But as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, she has been leaning on her faith when she struggles.


"I have a strong testimony of my savior and I know he’s helping me through this," she said.


When you ask Emily what kind of support she needs going forward, she said she feels like there is not a lot people can do.


But reaching out and listening and talking does help.


She said she and her church family have received letters of support from around the world and those have helped.


"They've just said 'you can get through this.' There have been people who have been through other fires and understand on a smaller scale how hard it is. And it's made me want to be a different person," Emily said. "The next time there's a disaster somewhere, I am going to be there writing letters, when in the past I thought someone else will do it. I don't think I ever thought about writing a letter before. I am definitely going to be a different person now."