Twenty eight year old Janell Goupil held her baby while sitting at a hotel lobby in Eureka. She smiled as one year old Rhett played with the window blinds. Her other children, an eight and nine year old, started school this week and her husband is finally back at work. While living in hotels doesn’t seem like the ideal situation for most families, it’s a lot better than what the Goupils have been through in the last few weeks.
“It was probably the worst and longest two hours of my life just hoping that they got out of Paradise," Janell said.
She's talking about her husband Danny and their baby Rhett who were separated from her as they escaped the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Danny was forced to evacuate and was afraid to leave Rhett alone, even for a minute in their apartment--an apartment they had just gotten and had lived in for ten days.Instead he put Rhett in a basket of clothes and ran towards the car in the parking lot. He also picked up his friends’ in-laws who Janell said may have died if Danny didn't save them.
“You could hear the propane tanks in town blowing up." Janell said. "I looked at my sister and I was like ‘this is apocalyptic’ like we need to get the hell out of here.”
Eventually both parties met up in Chico. Janell was relieved that their other kids were in Yreka with their birth mother and that her extended family had also escaped the blaze. Even her three dogs were safe with family members in Jackson, California. The Goupils could see the extent of the fire at night, where red flames engulfed their entire hometown.
"From the outside of Chico you could see the glow of the burning," she said, and then after several days of phonecalls and organizing, the Goupils made a decision. "My husband and I looked at each other and were like ‘we’re going to Humboldt,’ what are we gonna do?"
Going back to Paradise wasn’t an option for the family. Their home was burned like much of the area. Janell’s family restaurant-Jaki’s Hilltop Café in Magalia- did survive the fire, but they couldn’t re-open a restaurant in an area with no running water, no electricity and no people living there.
“It’s like you never really know how you’re really going to get hit with it because there’s complaining about not being able to shop or this or that. or bills. And then you get everything taken away from you, its kind of like ok, ‘refocus’ what’s really important," Janell said, but noted that she's grateful that her family is alive and being blessed as they relocate to the North Coast.
Humboldt County isn’t a new place for the Goupils who would often vacation in Trinidad. The family now says it’s like they never have to leave vacation-which is bittersweet for Janell, but she’s trying to maintain a positive attitude.
"I try not to fall apart, in general, as a human being. There’s too much going on in the world to fall apart. And when you have people relying on you then you really can’t fall apart," she said.
The Goupils have a Go Fund Me started, but they say the larger part of the blessings is that they’ve recently been approved for a house in McKinleyville—a house that allows dogs and is close to the kids’ new school.
“It’s a neighborhood with sidewalks and fenced yards and things that we have always been shooting for or talking about or wanting and it’s on the coast and it brings tears to my eyes because it could be everything we’ve ever wanted, we just had to lose everything first,” Janell said as she hugged baby Rhett, who fell asleep in her arms.
The Goupils also have an Amazon Wish List for those wanting to help with specific items. One critical item that Janell said they need is a truck bedcover for their Toyota Tacoma.