The fierce wildfires that ravaged Northern California earlier this year seemed remote to Islanders who viewed the terrifying images on television and computer screens. But the flames touched close to home when word reached the Vineyard in September that former residents Terry and Elaine Henry had escaped the powerful Valley Fire. But though they were fine, their home and all their possessions were destroyed.
As rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven from 1986 until 1996, the Rev. Terry Henry was deeply involved in both parish and community life, as was his wife Elaine.
Their children, Josh, Hillary, and Gina, all graduated from the regional high school. Although it has been nearly 20 years since the family left, they maintain close connections with many friends here, and consider the Island their home.
During the Reverend Henry’s ministry, Grace Church was marked by a strong sense of community and inclusivity. Both church and rectory doors were always open to those in need of a bed, a meal, or a friend. The church launched the first Community Soup Supper program, the lobster roll fundraiser, and the annual free Community Christmas Dinner, all thriving today.
Many especially remember Elaine and Terry for establishing a vibrant youth group that drew members from church families and the community. Activities included spiritual retreats, church and community service, backpacking trips, and gatherings. Reverend Henry sat on the boards of the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club and Community Services, where he served on the Possible Dreams Auction Committee and co-chaired, then chaired, the annual fundraiser. Both Henrys sang with the Martha’s Vineyard Community Chorus, and Reverend Henry played major roles in Island Theatre Workshop productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Hansel and Gretel.”
Along with caring for their three children, Elaine Henry commuted to UMass Boston to complete her undergraduate degree. She also chaired the regional high school Minnesinger Parents’ Group, and helped launch the annual auction that remains an important fundraiser.
The family moved to New York State in 1996. Mr. Henry left parish ministry and worked for several programs assisting those in need, including migrant workers and battered women. Ms. Henry took positions in similar helping projects.
In September 2001 she was working near the World Trade Center for an agency serving the homeless. When terrorist planes attacked, she and her co-worker saw the first tower fall, then had to be evacuated from their office.
Ms. Henry remarked that it is ironic that they moved to California in 2003 partly to live in a safer, more peaceful environment, but found themselves traumatized by disaster again. Ironically, the fire hit one day after Sept. 11.
In California, Mr. Henry held several posts with and is now CEO for the Adidam spiritual community, based on teachings of Adi Da Samraj, of which they are part. Ms. Henry serves as financial advisor and bookkeeper for several different divisions in Adidam.
In August 2009 the Henrys settled into a comfortable rented home in Middletown, Calif., in southern Lake County, a rural area in the mountains northeast of Santa Rosa where they lived until the fire. The region had endured two wildfires earlier this year, but none close enough to force evacuations. The Valley Fire sprang up suddenly on Sept. 12, fueled by drought and driven in unpredictable directions by strong, erratic winds.
“There was no surprise; we were so dry,” said Mr. Henry in a recent interview.
Elaine Henry was at home that afternoon when her husband phoned, alerting her that a fire could come their way. When she saw ominous updates and social media postings, she secured the dog and cat in crates and began to pack, preparing for evacuation. Terry Henry arrived home, and the couple hurriedly filled two vehicles and left. They were not convinced the house would burn, but wanted to be prudent. They would never see their home and neighborhood as it was again.
As they drove away, they passed Sheriff’s Department trucks with bullhorns announcing a mandatory evacuation. Ms. Henry said she thought to herself, “This might be a bit like death, leaving everything behind.”
The Henrys first went to stay with friends in Ukiah, an hour and a half away. Later they moved to a guesthouse owned by other friends.
This California wildfire’s impact on residential areas was far more vast than any in recent history. It covered 76,067 acres, and required more than 4,000 firefighters and heavy equipment to contain. Final reports listed four civilian fatalities, four firefighters injured, and 1,955 structures destroyed, including 1,300 homes.
According to Mr. Henry, in addition to their own, more than 50 of the approximately 60 houses in their immediate neighborhood were lost, and many thousands of trees burned down.
The Henrys recalled the eerie, heart-wrenching experience of sifting through the debris of what was once a welcoming home, filled with personal history and warm family memories.
“Something burning up in a fire is so complete,” said Mr. Henry. “There was so much there that had been such a part of my life, especially as a parish priest. All that is just ash. It brings forward the question of what really matters.”
Down the coast in Sebastopol, their daughter Gina Kerr had watched the fire’s rapid progress online and through social media. She kept in touch with her parents, and was relieved when they safely reached Ukiah.
“It felt like a whirlwind, how fast it went,” recalled Ms. Kerr. “It jumped around. Because it was so windy, with embers flying, it went from house to house.”
Saddened at the loss of favorite family items, Ms. Kerr set up a GoFundMe.com account to aid her displaced parents. Although hesitant to seek help, the Henrys were gratified by the response. About $6,500 has been raised, from both close friends and strangers.
Grace Church took a collection over several weeks to assist the Henrys, and recently sent them a check for $750, and Islanders have donated on GoFundMe.
The Henrys have purchased a used fifth-wheel RV, their home for the foreseeable future. Settled in an RV park in Clearlake, they are completely uncertain what will come next. They laugh that the spacious RV is no smaller than the tiny East Harlem apartment where they once lived.
Although they are comfortable, safe, and able to resume normal daily lives, the Henrys are still scrambling to replace necessities, including warm winter clothes. Their goal is to save enough money to purchase a truck capable of hauling the RV.
Old family photos are gone — images of friends, Grace Church events, their dog from the Island years. There was an album created by youth group teens filled with letters, photos, and memories; artwork by Vineyard friends; cards, love letters, Terry’s General Theological Seminary diploma.
Furniture, clothing, linens, kitchenware, china and crystal, appliances, and more were destroyed. Renters’ insurance covered barely one-third of the value.
Ms. Henry said they were first in shock and denial, and now often experience grief.
“It has taken a while to remember all that we have lost,” she wrote. “Daily, we remember items, large and small, replaceable and nonreplaceable. We cry, we laugh, we keep our senses of humor.”
“It’s been a stark realization of how impermanent we are. There’s a certain impermanence about everything,” said Ms. Henry.
“When all else is gone that one identifies with, you’re left with the Divine, with God, and that’s what it’s all about,” Mr. Henry mused.
“The prayers and love of so many people known and unknown have carried us through this time,” wrote Ms. Henry. “As the Christmas holiday approaches, we feel joy and deep sorrow. We replaced our 7-foot Christmas tree with a 2-foot tree.
“Love and laughter are what heals. Never in a million years did we ever think that we would lose all our material belongings and end up living in an RV. However, we still have each other. We do laugh a lot, and we have our friends from all across this country. We have the Divine in our life, and our spiritual life is our priority. All in all, life is good.”
To contact the Henrys: Terry and Elaine Henry, P.O. Box 1956, Middletown, CA 95461. To donate through GoFundMe: gofund.me/ks46r3fk. Extensive coverage of the California Valley Fire can be found online.