This time of year, Rachelle Neal, AIFD, should be gearing up for the holidays and event work. Instead, she’s donning protective face masks and reaching out to friends and community members who have lost everything in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history.
“It’s all just very surreal,” said Neal, the owner of Flowers by Rachelle in Chico, California, and a member of the Society of American Florists. “The [Camp Fire] got within a mile of our shop, but my family and I are OK. Unfortunately, one of my employees and her family most likely lost their home. It’s a horrible situation.”
At least 48 people have been killed by the fire, with about 200 people still missing. An estimated 8,800 structures, most of them homes, have been destroyed. Elsewhere in the state, the Woolsey Fire is west of Los Angeles; the Hill Fire, in Ventura County, is reported to be 90 percent contained. The fires have not directly affected California’s major flower growing regions.
For Neal, a former president of the American Institute of Floral Designers’ Northwest Region, the past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster, with heartbreaking stories pouring in. “I know so many people who have lost everything,” she said. “It’s very smoky everywhere. You hear about these [disasters] on the news, but until you’ve physically walked around and talked to people, it’s really hard to imagine.”
Because she did not have to evacuate, Neal has been going to her store every day for a shortened workday, along with a small crew of employees. They had a handful of orders on Tuesday and are catching up on a few tasks, mainly to stay busy. Neal has been careful not to expose her team to unnecessary risks — beyond the immediate danger of the fires, poor air quality from the smoke remains a concern. The economic toll on Chico’s small businesses is hard to fathom right now, Neal said, but it’s also far from what she and others are focused on.