That’s what happened to Leia Wentworth, 26, of North Fork, who was living with her father and daughter in the first house that went up in flames during the Fork Fire. The fire started just before 6 p.m. on Friday, July 29, in the mill housing across from the Old Mill site in South Fork.
Ultimately the fire burned through the weekend, prompting evacuations and threatening more than 200 structures. Of the three that burned, one of them was Leia’s place.
Driving back from Fresno on Friday after a long day, Leia and her boyfriend Josh were heading toward home, with Leia’s 13-month-old daughter Annabelle asleep in her car seat in back. Leia and Josh had just signed a lease that morning on a place in the mill housing, where they were planning on living together for the first time.
For the time being, Leia and Annabelle had been staying with her father, David Wentworth, and had moved in all their possessions just three days before. Leia’s plan was to stay there for a month while her new place — also in the mill housing — was made ready.
Suddenly, as they drove along on Road 200, Josh received the kind of text message that’s nearly incomprehensible. It read, “Hey Josh, just calling to let you know that lays place burnt to the ground right now…”
From that moment on, Leia says now, it’s a bit of a blur. Her dad’s rented house was on fire and burning down. Looking out on the horizon, the couple saw smoke and the realization hit home.
“It’s the most helpless moment of your life,” says Leia. “Everything you own is 30 minutes away and you can’t get anything out and no one is there.” Leia’s dad was still at work.
“It was devastating,” she continues, “it takes your breath away.”
The message continued with the alarming information that the house was burning and two family dogs were unaccounted for, and thought to be lost to the fire. Josh and Leia raced toward home.
That’s what happened to Janice Catanzarite, who lived just a few feet from the burning home. Janice fosters rescue cats and was bottle feeding a three-week-old kitten, among other felines she cares for. Janice was about to go outside and spend some time in the garden when a loud noise caught her attention.
“I heard a motorcycle dirt bike go by and I had heard it before,” says Janice, “and I see our manager Leroy come charging down the road. He jumps out of his truck and runs next door, and I said ‘Whats going on?’ The guy on the motorcycle just pointed and I saw smoke and flames shooting out of the house next door.”
Janice grabbed the water hose and went to work, trying desperately to save her home and pets.
“I started spraying over there at the house on fire and spraying water on my shed and on the bushes,” referring to neighbor David’s house. “He had some high weeds. That’s when the power line broke, and Leroy had to shut the pump off, so I had no water.”
Janice grabbed her kitten, her purse and keys, and headed out the door.
Meanwhile, Leia and Josh had finally arrived at the scene of the fire, but it was too late to get in. Authorities had closed the road to the house.
“They wouldn’t let us through,” Leia explains. “They stopped us at Road 225 and 274. We pulled into the turnout by the North Fork dump to watch the fire.”
Leia knew she needed to get her daughter somewhere safe. Annabelle’s father Jordan lives nearby and his home was on pre-evacuation. Leia took Annabelle to Jordan’s parents’ house so she could evaluate the situation, knowing her baby was in good hands.
Back at the compound, there was a bit of good news for Leia.
“The dogs had managed to get out and were just running around the compound. They didn’t go far, and they were both safe and unscathed,” and with Leia’s mom.
From Josh’s house, the couple had a clear view of the fire, so they went there to watch and wait to see which way the flames would spread. At one point, the fire jumped the road and evacuations were expanded to Cascadel Road and Douglas Ranger Station. With her child safe and knowing there was little else she could do, Leia went to bed and slept like a rock.
“A dear lady named Janice lost her home tonight,” read the missive from Monika. “It was the second one burned. She is a wonderful person and fellow rescuer, and I am just home from helping her rescue as many cats from the area around her house as possible.” Monika reported that several cats were still missing.
“Three of Janice’s cats are burned,” “Monika continued. “Two are fairly minor but the third, a sweetheart of a guy named Pacer, has burnt nose and ears, no whiskers, and the pads on his feet are burnt. He was very close to the fire and it is miraculous that he managed to survive.”
With the okay from Janice’s son Scott, Monika set up a GoFundMe for the fire victim and her cats. Another account has been set up by Janice’s niece Amber that’s for Janice, herself. Click here for that link for Janice.
Janice had been fostering a mama cat and kittens for Friends of the Madera Shelter. The mama cat survived, but the kittens perished in the fire, along with other felines currently unaccounted for and presumed deceased. Janice was heartbroken.
“Janice got cuts on her leg while we were searching somehow, though she doesn’t remember it happening. Four Kings River Hotshots — including two young men and two young women — pulled out their gear, cleaned and bandaged her cuts, and mixed up and gave her a special electrolyte drink because she was dehydrated.”
The firefighters did their best to lift Janice’s spirits, telling her that cats are smart, and good at saving themselves.
“They were angels,” says Monika, “They were exhausted and sweaty and didn’t hesitate to pull stuff back off the truck to keep helping. The Citizens on Patrol people also got us medical supplies. The ever-cheerful CHP officer who recognized me and let me back in after leaving four carriers, bedding, food, dishes and everything else was a sweetheart as well. Everyone I interacted with cared and helped, and I cannot thank them enough.”
When the smoke had cleared and evacuations were finally lifted, residents returned home and the people who lost their possessions started to sift through the rubble left behind by the fire. With both homes a total loss, help began to pour in for the victims left with nothing.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Leia. “Everyone in the community has been so amazing and supportive,” yet there’s no getting around the irreplaceable losses.
“You feel like you haven’t slept in days. I couldn’t process — my brain wasn’t letting me grasp reality and it felt like a dream.” Baby Annabelle is staying with her dad and step-mom in true modern family style.
What hit Leia hard was the loss of her daughter’s keepsake box from baby’s first year. Back working at the Tenaya Lodge Spa on Sunday, Leia was struck by the destruction of precious memories.
“I had a journal I started even before she was born, with all of her big milestones, and all my feelings. I’d been writing everything down so she would know some day about how some things made me feel, and what it was like doing it alone, and everything I thought was relevant and it burned. The pain from that one literally stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. It felt like a hand was on my chest.”
From her grandmother’s fine china to a family rifle and a violin both passed down through generations, Leia says those items are not always that easy to grab and go, so she now suggests keeping them in a box for easy transport in the event of evacuation.
Leia’s dad David is staying on a friend’s property right now, she says, trying to keep his head up and stay positive. They were given clothes and a gift card by the Red Cross, in order to make purchases for immediate relief. At least two vehicles burned, including a truck David had been restoring that was just days away from being complete.
“It feels like a lot of people think ‘it won’t happen to me.’ It’s got to happen to someone and as much as that hurts, you want to not to have anxiety about it, but don’t put it out of your mind. You can’t live life thinking that it won’t happen to you.”
Leia emphasizes that she’s grateful her losses were limited to material items alone, and not life.
Some of Janice’s cats were not so lucky, as it turned out.
“I was hoping the fire department would get here before it got worse. A lot of questions went through my mind, like ‘why isn’t someone helping instead of taking video?’ I don’t know how it all happened, but they couldn’t spray because of the power line. If water hit the fence it could cause the electrocution. I was fostering kittens and I asked, ‘can’t you go there and just rip the screen off the bedroom window?’ And they couldn’t do that.”
While the loss of the beloved pets’ lives is paramount, she also feels the pain of losing irreplaceable family possessions.
“I had all my mom and dad’s furniture and my grandmother’s bedroom set, and all the memories are gone, totally,” Janice laments.
A handful of Janice’s cats survived, and Monday brought a bit of good news from Dr. Beth Taylor at Hoof ‘n Paw in Oakhurst. The burns on the cats vary from minor to serious.
“They all had fevers and two are burned all over their bodies,” says Janice. “Two are burned just on the pads of their feet.”
Despite their injuries, the prognosis for the cats was pretty good. All four felines are expected to recover, according to the vet. Janice says she’ll keep us updated on their condition.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed,” she says. “I go up there to where the house burned every night and just look through things.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
UPDATE from Janice on Aug. 4: “The mama cat that survived is mine,” Janice explains, “and I still haven’t found her kittens. The mama and her four babies did make it — those are the ones I was fostering. I found mama and didn’t want to bury her until I found all her babies. Now I can place them altogether.”
UPDATE from Monika on Aug. 4: “We have two of Leia’s three cats. The third has been spotted.”