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A year later, residents discuss rebuilding, life after 49 Fire

Devastation in past, moving forward is now, man says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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The 49 Fire that destroyed 63 homes and two businesses a year ago Monday left the North Auburn community reeling, but many residents decided to stay and rebuild the homes they lost. In this profile, Jack Kenny and Noelle and Dave Mays reflect on the past year bringing them to the present. Last Year Kenny lives on Creekside Place with his daughter. He lost his home and almost everything he had in the fire. “(My) initial response – I was devastated,” Kenny said. Kenny said his cat died in the fire and his dog died three days later. Among countless destroyed possessions was memorabilia from his time in the Navy. “For us to lose everything we had … to lose things that can’t be replaced, that was devastating,” Kenny said. “On the other side of the token, no one got killed. Life goes on, and you look at the good side of it.” Dave and Noelle Mays live on Southpark Place with their 15-year-old son, Adam. Before their home was consumed, Dave managed to save the dog, turtle, Noelle’s laptop and his camera. Dave Mays said he was in shock as he watched the first house on their street burn. “At that point you hear people screaming and things popping, and you just go into a different land,” he said. Noelle Mays was at the State Theatre with Adam when the fire broke out. When she got out and noticed the smoke, she said she couldn’t understand what kind of structure could be burning. “It was an atom bomb, it was just crazy,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom where it could possibly be that it would cause that much smoke.” She then got a voicemail from her husband saying that he was safe, but their house was probably gone. The family met up at a friend’s house, and Noelle Mays said the first night was the hardest. “Once the shock wore off … the worst of all was laying there the first night and thinking,” she said. “You can start picturing (the house) burning or being gone. There was no safe place to go to in your brain.” One foot in front of the other – rebuilding Kenny moved into his rebuilt home in June. Kenny said after the flames consumed nearly every possession he had, and when he stopped to consider the future, he knew he would be back in his home within a year. “It feels really good,” Kenny said. “The house is beautiful. The house, I think, was about 30 years old, but I have owned it for about 25 years, so having the house designed the way I want it is a pretty nice thing.” Kenny said he learned, when rebuilding, it’s important to not dwell on the tragedy in the past. “When you are walking through hell, keep on walking,” he said. “It’s hard, but we are in the now, what happened is in the past. Tomorrow’s a mystery, today is a gift, so let’s enjoy it.” The Mays family has been living in the new home for about a month. Noelle Mays said she had to constantly get things done in the rebuilding process, so she didn’t have time to sit and feel bad for herself. The family became much stronger throughout the grieving and rebuilding experience, Noelle Mays said. “We really ended up having to rely on each other a lot,” she said. “We really did have to get each other through emotionally.” Dave Mays said he was determined to rebuild their house as quickly as possible. “I told Noelle … we will get back in a year,” Dave Mays said. Noelle Mays said time didn’t always fly, but they tried to focus on what was going on in the moment to not get discouraged. “There were times when it drug on,” she said. “You hit these pockets where it feels like nothing is going on.” Noelle Mays said she learned a lot from the rebuilding process that she would like to pass on to those still working on their homes. “You have to change your viewpoint on things immediately,” she said. “It’s the little things in the beginning that really get to you. It just seems like it’s endless in the beginning. Rebuilding, it’s trying. From moment to moment the phone rings constantly. Inevitably it has to stop. It will be over.” Being aware of everything you own is also important when it comes to making the insurance aspect of fire recovery work, Noelle Mays said. Residents just have to keep going through the process and things will work out, Noelle Mays said. “Stay upright and put one foot in front of the other, and the rest will fall into place,” she said. Today Kenny said he’s happy to move on with life and get back to his normal routine. Kenny said he increased his house’s size by 489 square feet and there are several aspects of it that he really enjoys, such as his 3 ½-car garage. “I’m the co-chairman of Auburn Cruise Nite,” he said. “I have an antique truck that happened to be in the shop when the fire occurred. (I also like) the landscaping. In the front it’s got a dry riverbed look to it, and it’s really nice. In the back I have grass and trees. It’s much nicer than it used to be.” Noelle Mays said she now has some time to stop and appreciate her house. “I think the biggest thing … is it’s been such a completely busy year with all of the ups and downs,” Noelle Mays said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the house until I got back in it. It’s very comforting really.” Noelle Mays said her favorite part of her home has to do with one of her pastimes: cooking. “My kitchen is quite spectacular,” she said. “That’s (the) most wonderful thing (for me).” She said she even plans to do some canning in her new kitchen this weekend. The couple is now working on their landscaping, and Dave Mays said he likes to relax outside as well as enjoying simple parts of living in their own home, like being able to hang things on the walls. Before the fire the couple replaced the glass in their patio table, so they decided to hang onto it, even though it is a bit charred. Dave Mays said when he stops to think about it now, it’s hard to believe the tragedy even took place. “It’s almost like the fire never happened,” he said. “The whole year that went by being in the rental and watching them build the houses, it’s been like a blur.” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com