Monday 24 June 2019

'How do you explain to a two-year-old that they can't go home?' - Cork mother-of-six left homeless by California fires

  • Single mum-of-six has been living in California since 2000
  • Recalls terror of fleeing deadly flames engulf the neighbourhood
  • Family now living in temporary accommodation, miles from destroyed community
Zita's destroyed home (main) and her six children (inset)
Zita's destroyed home (main) and her six children (inset)

Olivia McGill

A Cork woman who was left homeless by the devastating fires in California last week, recalls the terror of fleeing the deadly flames and dreams about owning her own home again.

Zita Harrington Biehle, a single mum of six from Castletownbere in West Cork, who has been living in California since 2000. Her children range in age from 23 months to 17 years.

Zita's home was completely destroyed in the fire
Zita's home was completely destroyed in the fire
Zita Harrington
The entire area is covered in thick ash
None of the family's possessions survived the fire

The paramedic, who had been on shift the night before, heard there was mandatory evacuation across the river from her home but, in the area where she lived, there were no sign the fire was coming.

"We thought we were in the safest place possible. There was no ash or smoke, there were no warnings on the news. The fire was miles away," she told

"Just in case we would have to evacuate, I got someone to pick up the kids. Within two or three minutes while we drove home, everything changed. We could see flames, what was nothing before was now all brown."

Upon reaching her home, Zita took time to call into her neighbours and warn them to get out.

"I checked on the neighbours while the kids ran inside to grab some pictures, including the only one I have of my dad. By then I could see a wall of flames. We got into the car and fled."

Zita's house was hit by a huge 'firenado' and there is nothing left. The family went to an evacuation centre for those left homeless by the fires and are now living in temporary accommodation in Fall River, beside where Zita works and almost an hour and a half away from her destroyed community.

Zita's six children
Zita's six children
Zita's home was hit by a huge fireball
Within minutes Zita's whole neighbourhood was engulfed in flames

While she knows she is lucky to have somewhere to stay it is a massive adjustment, especially for her children and she misses the 'small things' that people normally take for granted.

"The kids are losing their school and their friends. We had a fabulous neighbourhood but the whole sub division is wiped out. It will take them at least a year and a half to to clear up the mess there and get building permits to build anything so we will have to establish ourselves in a new area.

"It's the stupid stuff I miss most, like my Barry's Tea. I don't have a kettle to make tea. When I want to cook, I don't have pots and pans big enough to cook for six. I miss having a table we can all sit around, as family meals are important to me. The simple things that are normally taken for granted, we don't have anymore.

"When my mum got married, she wore a lace wedding gown which was later made into a Christening robe that we all wore, it's gone. My kid's blanket she had since she was a baby is gone, all their electronics - gone. I'm so proud of my kids, they haven't complained, that's the amazing thing. How do you explain to someone who is not even two-years-old that they can't go home. People say stuff can be replaced but it's the experience you go through that's hard."

While the situation has been unimaginable for Zita and her family, it has been made easier by the support she has received from family, friends and even complete strangers. A GoFundMe page has been set up to support Zita and her family.

"The community and where I work have been phenomenal, it's the simple stuff that's overwhelming. So many people have reached out to us and that has made such a difference. Whether it's through donating on GoFundMe, sharing a message on Facebook or just saying we are thinking of you. Even people who don't know us. When you have nothing, that's the stuff that means an awful lot.

"Just because we got out alive doesn't mean we are ok. I know there's a long road ahead. For now I am taking one day at a time. It's all I can do."


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