With her backpack slung over one shoulder and a white smartphone in hand, Valeria Romo Mejía fits right in at Vacaville High School. But the 16-year-old from the Colombian town of Ipiales has lived through a tumultuous year.
She first arrived in California last August through the Rotary Youth Exchange program, and was placed in the small Northern California town of Paradise. The teenager felt an instant connection with her host family — couple Bret and Rendy Hinerman and their 17-year-old son, Aidan Sievers — and the town itself.
“I love nature and I love [the] city, too,” she said. “It was a place that had everything you need. It had a lot of trees, deer, squirrels. I even [saw] a bear close to my house.”
But as she got ready for school on the morning of November 8, Romo Mejía saw smoke in the distance.
She recalls at first not being worried, and that she sent a picture to her parents back in Colombia. "Hey, there is a little bit of smoke. But it's really far away and it looks kind of pretty with the landscape," she recalled texting.
By the time Romo Mejía and Sievers arrived at Paradise High School, students were evacuating. And less than an hour later, Romo Mejía says she heard two propane tanks explode; the Camp Fire had arrived in town.
After helping a family member pack up her young children, she and Sievers got into his truck and headed out of town. Smoke and ash had turned the sky completely dark. The roads were congested as people tried to leave Paradise, she recalled.
“It was so scary, because we all knew it was the morning but it [looked] really dark," she remembered, adding that the flames were about a block from the truck.
As they drove, Romo Mejía texted her parents pictures. “My mother was really upset, praying a lot,” she said. “My dad was looking at Google Maps, saying, ‘There is a lake you can go to if you need to escape, or a river.’”
There was fire on both sides of the road, Mejía Romo recalled. As smoke came into the car, the teens covered their faces. She told Seviers: “‘If the fire gets really close, we should go out of the car and run, because I don’t really want to burn with the car if that happens.’”
Romo Mejía credits him with saving their lives: He drove onto a paved bike path, which gave them a shortcut to the road that leads out of town.
Sievers’ parents were astonished when they found out how their teenager had improvised a way around traffic. His father asked, “Whatever made you think of that?”
Sievers’ response? “I’ve been wanting to drive a car up onto that path my whole life!” he said.
The two teens haven’t really talked about that day since, Mejía Romo says, but “both of my parents are very grateful to him because he saved me.”
The Hinerman family survived the Camp Fire, but the flames devastated the home of Sievers’ grandparents, where they all lived. Since the evacuation, family members have been living in different places while rebuilding the home.
After staying in Chico for a few weeks, Romo Mejía was relocated to a new host family in Vacaville, which is nearly two-hours away. In the weeks following the Camp Fire, she thought about returning home to South America; moving away from the Hinerman family and her friends at Paradise High School was a “really rough” transition, she says.
Looking back on her year, Romo Mejía says escaping the fire was not the hardest part. “The experience that is really painful is what’s going on after the fire,” she said, adding that it’s difficult knowing that families are separated.
She also worries that people will forget what happened in Paradise.
"The Camp Fire was like a really huge topic in the news for a month. Then, we didn’t really hear about it anymore,” she said. But “there are [still] people who have lost everything.”
On June 8, she’ll walk at graduation with Vacaville High School’s class of 2019. A few weeks later, she’ll head back to Colombia to reunite with her parents, and then enroll in a local university to study international relations.
But before she leaves Northern California, she has a message for her friends in Paradise:
"I am very thankful with all of them. I'll remember Paradise, always, with love."