The recent Valley Fire, north of Napa, scorched more than 75,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,300 homes. Thousands of people were displaced. Imagine if you were one of them, you lost everything but were scared to ask for help.
That’s the reality for many undocumented families in the area.
Patricia Madrigal unloads donated clothes into her new temporary home, a yellow dome tent at a campground outside of Middletown.
"We lost everything because we couldn’t salvage anything," says Madrigal as her eyes fill with tears. "It was all of the sudden. The memory is traumatizing."
Seven years ago Madrigal illegally moved to California from Mexico. Since that time, she’s washed dishes at Harbin Hot Springs Retreat Center. Her 19-year-old daughter worked in the café.
Along with her home, the center is ashes.
"The little that we had is gone," she says.
Including their Mexican birth certificates, her marriage license and any proof that she and her daughter have lived in the U.S.
She’s contacted the Mexican Consulate to see if duplicates can be made. But so far, the process has been overwhelming.
She doesn’t know where or how she’ll make ends meet.
"I feel so sad for what happened," she says. "We never imagined this."
Madrigal’s daughter, Jacqueline Burgueño sits hunched over on an ice chest listening to her mom cry. Burgueño was home alone when she was evacuated. She feels guilty that she didn’t think to grab the family’s documents before escaping.
"I didn’t get anything," she says. "I was too nervous to grab anything."
Including her work permit and her social security card. Burgueño was born in Tijuana, but she has temporary legal status under the federal policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
She expects she’ll be out work for at least two months while new documents are processed.
Meanwhile, she’s paying tuition for nursing school. But, she’s not sure she’ll be able to continue classes. She might have to get a full-time job to help the family.
Veronica McGee is a local volunteer who is helping Spanish-speaking families who’ve lost their home in the fire. She drives me to the area of Middletown where many Latino families lived. The block is now a wasteland.
"All the apartments you can see it’s just powder," she says. "Literally, literally. Look at this."
She points to a rental property in the area that burned down completely. The skeleton of a truck sits in what used to be a driveway. A statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands erect in the ashes next to a rusty tricycle.
Tonight McGee is translating at a community meeting at the local elementary school.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Representatives are on hand to talk to victims about available aid.
Spanish-speaking families listen attentively. There’s almost a palpable fear in the air. FEMA representative Allen Anderson tries to reassure the audience.
"FEMA will never turn you into the INS," he says. "Our concern is to keep a safe sanitary roof above your head."
He tells several undocumented people that it’s safe to list their full names on forms.
"If you have one legal family member in the household we can register you, that can be even a three-day-old baby," he says.
But, Patricia Madrigal is still nervous to fill out paperwork from the government. She’s terrified that she’ll be deported to Michoacán, where she’s from in Mexico.
"It’s really ugly there," she says. "There is a lot of violence and killings. We are scared of where we’re from. There’s no justice or security. There’s nothing there."
And, yet the family may qualify for thousands of dollars in aid because her daughter Jacqueline does have temporary legal status under DACA.
Madrigal says she’ll take the forms back to the campground and think about it overnight.