Richmond man who survived Camp Fire gifted RV by San Pablo teacher
on December 19, 2018
Moving from Richmond to Paradise saved Bill Crossley. It gave him a life away from the drinking and the partying that defined his teens and 20s in the Bay Area.
Crossley, now 51, never imagined that a chance meeting with a man from neighboring San Pablo nearly 30 years later would save him again — this time with the gift of an RV, after the deadliest fire in California history took everything else from him.
In Paradise, amid the pines, the gold-veined canyons and the crisp, clean air, Crossley found a clean and fulfilling life as a handyman, finally free of the excessive alcohol use and DUIs that kept him in and out of prison for much of his life. It’s where he met his girlfriend, now 57-year-old Judy Floyd, who lived in the same trailer park where Crossley lived with his grandmother, paying $150 a month and helping out around the house in exchange for a room.
Almost five years ago, Paradise gave Floyd a new life, too. After her husband died, she purchased a double-wide trailer inside a mobile home park on Pentz Road named for the trees that towered over much of Butte County: Blue Spruce Mobile Home Estates.
Like many in Butte County who lost their homes in the Camp Fire, the couple was already living on the edge. Floyd, disabled by medical conditions, lived off a monthly $800 social security check. Half of that went to bills, she said, with the other half used for basic living expenses. The tight financial picture meant no extra cash for things like homeowner’s insurance.
“That’s one of the reasons I moved to Paradise — because that’s what I could afford,” said Floyd, who had to leave her hometown of Sacramento because of the cost of living. “And I couldn’t even really afford that. … I was ready to be homeless, to tell you the truth.”
So far, nearly 10 percent of Butte County’s 220,000 residents have registered for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of those, about a quarter have so far been approved for funding, said David Passey, a FEMA spokesman. Crossley and Floyd are among them. But with no insurance payouts, the combined sum of about $5,000 from FEMA is as much reimbursement for their losses as they’re likely to get.
The unparalleled devastation in Butte County is only worsened by the number of low-income residents affected by the fires. There, the median household income is about $47,000. That’s about $20,000 less than the statewide median. And more than 18 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national poverty rate is 12 percent.
Though no exact figures are available, compared to 2017’s North Bay wildfires, the number of uninsured or underinsured people affected by the Camp Fire appears to be high, Passey said.
‘I felt like I was in a war.’
When she woke inside her trailer to the smell of smoke just after 6:30 a.m. Nov. 8, Floyd couldn’t figure out what might be the source. Her first thought was that a fire might have started in her trailer: Maybe she had fallen asleep with a cigarette? But she quickly reconsidered. That wasn’t like her.
Outside that morning, the air was hot and thick with the smell of smoke. Ash fell from the sky like snow, and the fierce winds whipped it around her. It was time to leave.
She grabbed her purse and got in her car.
A mother of two grown children, she had been to Sacramento to visit her daughter the day before. In an act of kindness, she had offered to fill Floyd’s tank with gas. Little did either of them know how important that would be.
“Everything was exploding around me,” she said. “I felt like I was in a war, you know?”
Out of the trailer park, she joined a long line of cars on Pentz Road slowly winding their way out of town. As the minutes passed by, the air grew thick not just with ash but with embers. Trees overhead caught fire and tensions among the drivers rose as quickly as the temperature outside.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said.
A few miles away, Crossley had been out with friends chopping wood in the forest when they first started hearing the explosions. The booming was so loud, one friend thought a plane might have crashed.
The smoke and fierce winds made it apparent soon after that wasn’t the case. They raced out of the canyon as fast as they could, but the fire was quick, and soon the nearby ridge was ablaze.
Crossley knew he had to get to his grandmother at home. By the time he reached her, she was ready to go.
With the chaos in the fire’s immediate aftermath and cellphone service limited, it would be days before he could reconnect with Floyd. When they two finally did, he burst into tears.
“The emotions just started flowing,” he said.
‘I just thank God for him.’
Floyd and Crossley slept in the back of Crossley’s car in a Walmart parking lot for two weeks wondering what to do next, before they figured out FEMA would provide them with hotel vouchers. A motorhome, they both agreed, would give them the more permanent shelter they needed while they figured out how to rebuild their lives.
But money was limited. Just to afford the boots they wore to withstand the cold, Floyd felt compelled to panhandle in one of Sacramento’s wealthy neighborhoods, she said.
“We didn’t have nothing,” she said. “We got out of there with nothing. … You don’t think about things like that when you pay your bills. You think, I have a home. I’ve got food. I’m fine. No, I wasn’t.”
Some cash from Crossley’s grandmother gave them the chance they needed to seriously consider a motorhome purchase. On Nov. 28, they found one for sale in Orland they thought might work. That’s where they met Rich Kinney.
Kinney, a 62-year-old teacher with the West Contra Costa Unified School District, has dedicated much of his life to service. He has been on the San Pablo City Council since 2012, and is currently serving as mayor. A pastor, Kinney previously worked as a chaplain for various Contra Costa County law enforcement departments.
He was in Orland that day to negotiate a price for the RV, which he intended to hand over to the first verifiable Camp Fire survivors he encountered. As Kinney, Crossley and Floyd stood together looking over the RV for sale, they got to talking and Kinney discovered he had just met the recipients.
When Crossley and Floyd told him they were interested in the motorhome, Kinney paid for it with a $1,500 check.
In the immediate aftermath of 2017’s North Bay fires, Kinney felt compelled to help house those left homeless by the devastation. Through a friend’s nonprofit, he was able to raise enough money to purchase and donate two motorhomes to Sonoma County fire survivors. When the Camp Fire struck Paradise, two hours north of his Contra Costa County home, Kinney again felt called to house fire survivors.
“He’s in my prayers every night,” Crossley said. “I just thank God for him.”
For its foothills, open skies and especially the way it smells after a rain, Crossley hopes to return to Paradise — to rebuild it the way it rebuilt him, he said.
The first step toward that future was securing housing, and when Kinney paid for it that morning in Orland, it gave Crossley hope. It also meant he could put the cash he and Floyd had cobbled together toward repairing his truck, which he drove 28 miles on a melted, flat tire to escape the blaze.
With one motorhome successfully passed off, Kinney is actively raising funds to purchase another.
“I just see the need, and the human suffering gets to me,” Kinney said. “I just want to do whatever I can. … I just want to get as many of these people in their own home before the holidays as possible.”
The motorhome needs some work, but it means Crossley and Floyd will have a roof over their heads when the rains come.
“It was one of the happiest experiences of my life just to be able to see the joy and the satisfaction of somebody getting served,” Kinney said.
To donate to Kinney’s fire relief effort and help him gift more motor homes to Camp Fire victims for the holidays, click here.
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