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A slice of Iowa Nice in Paradise

PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHERRAE SPRAGUE

These party dresses being worn by Northern California Ballet dancers were donated by Fairfield's Ginger Belilove.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHERRAE SPRAGUE These party dresses being worn by Northern California Ballet dancers were donated by Fairfield's Ginger Belilove.
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A series of wildfires wreaked havoc on California in 2018.

The most devastating fire of the season was the Camp Fire (named for its origin on Camp Creek Road) that ravaged the city of Paradise, California, in November.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the fire killed 86 people and destroyed more than 13,900 homes, about 80 percent of the city.

Trudi Angel, director of the Northern California Ballet, was preparing for her ballet company’s annual rendition of “The Nutcracker.” The fire changed all that. The Camp Fire consumed her house, the ballet studio, and storage units containing 30 years’ worth of sets, back drops, props and costumes.

“After the fire, we did not have one costume left,” Angel said.

In the face of such devastation, there was no way to perform the show. Or was there? Enter Ginger Belilove.

Dance Theatre of Iowa

Belilove is a Fairfield resident who was involved in ballet locally for many years thanks to her daughter, Elysia. By the time she was 6, Elysia had enrolled in Emma Lamoureux’s ballet classes at Fairfield Ballet, south of the Jefferson County Courthouse in what is now Art Fifty Two. Lamoureux founded the nonprofit Dance Theatre of Iowa, which produced a classical or original contemporary ballet every year until 2011. The mothers of the dancers designed and made costumes for each production.

The studio produced several terrific dancers, including a few such as Catherine Wells, Caitlin Scranton, Katherine Vigmostad and Angelia Mahaney who went on to have careers in dance.

Through Dance Theatre of Iowa, Belilove and Joanne Wilkins continued to produce shows together from 2006 until 2011 when Elysia and Wilkins’s daughter Tahra graduated from high school, and Lamoureux moved to the west coast. Belilove became the custodian of the dance theatre’s treasure trove of beautiful handmade costumes.

Ginger and her husband Jim stored the costumes at their business Creative Edge Master Shop. Ginger very much wanted to see another dance troupe use the costumes; she was just waiting for an opportunity to donate them.

Jim said, “The costumes are beautiful. The moms made them with great care and originality.”

After reaching out to friends and relatives, Ginger discovered a website where dance troupes post messages seeking help from other dancers. That’s where Ginger learned about the tragedy in Paradise.

Perseverance

Despite the utter destruction, Northern California Ballet was determined to put on its production of “The Nutcracker,” even if that meant doing it in a neighboring town, with borrowed sets and costumes, and recasting some of the parts. Ninety-five percent of the dancers in the ballet company lost their homes. The girl picked to play the Sugar Plum Fairy, the lead role, moved away after the fire. She had been rehearsing for the role an entire year. The girl who stepped in to take her place had five weeks to learn the part.

Northern California Ballet started a fundraiser asking for donations. The ballet company was in luck. Belilove had hundreds of costumes, including those for “The Nutcracker,” that she was looking to donate anyway. What better recipient than a dance troupe rebuilding from the ashes?

Belilove got in touch with HeatherRae Sprague, a volunteer mom who spearheaded the clothing drive. Like Angel, Sprague lost her house to the fire, and was living in the neighboring town of Willows.

Belilove sent Sprague 16 boxes containing at least 300 costumes. When the boxes arrived in California, the dancers could not believe their eyes. The Paradise dance group repurposed reindeer costumes into bon bon outfits. They put Ginger’s mirliton dresses to use on the ballet’s shepherdesses. In fact, Ginger has become known to the Paradise dancers as “the costume lady.”

Northern California Ballet performed The Nutcracker Jan. 18-20 in the neighboring town of Oroville, just one month later than scheduled.

Angel remarked that the generosity of Ginger and the Fairfield dance community was beyond compare. She said there was no way to thank them enough, and that without them, there would have been no Nutcracker performance.

“It was so neat that these two groups found each other,” Jim said. “Fairfield is unique among small towns for having such high caliber performers, and somehow fate connected us to this similarly rural, classically-trained ballet studio in Paradise.”

Ginger added that it was sweet to see photos from the Nutcracker of boys and girls dressed in the costumes she sent.

Northern California Ballet just finished another production last month of “Sleeping Beauty.” That one was performed at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, one of the few large structures in the city unscathed by the fire.

“It was such a big healing process for the dancers and community to have The Nutcracker to watch and perform,” Angel said. “The students have school in different towns and not all of their friends are in the same place, but at least the ballet company is together. Thank you to all the kind people who helped us rise out of the ashes.”

Day of the fire

Sprague recounted that fateful day when the Camp Fire swept through Paradise in the blink of an eye, and how she fretted about being stuck in traffic as the flames drew near.

On the morning of Nov. 8, Sprague let her dog out to play in the yard. The dog normally stays out all day, but just an hour later, it wanted to come back inside. Sprague thought that was odd because it wasn’t raining or cold. She let the dog back inside, and went about her day.

She saw through her window that her neighbor was outside pacing, looking at the sky and talking on his phone. Sprague’s daughter Evelyn told her “ash is falling.” Her husband assured her it must be leaves falling from a tree. Sprague went outside to see for herself, and agreed with Evelyn that it really was ash.

The only information they were able to find online at the time was that there was a wildfire 10-acres large in Pulga across the canyon.

“We get wildfires in the mountains often, so it was not a huge concern for this area,” Sprague said.

The family figured the wind was just blowing the ashes toward Paradise, and that there was nothing to worry about. Except this time, there was, which they would learn in short order. What Sprague and her family didn’t realize was that the fire had jumped across a river that would normally stop such wildfires from spreading to the city.

Just an hour after discovering the distant wildfire on the internet, Sprague’s husband got a call from his ex-wife informing him that their two sons were being evacuated from school as a precaution. The husband told Sprague to pack some belongings in case they had to evacuate the house, too.

Sprague told Evelyn to take a shower and get ready for the day. Meanwhile, Sprague received a Facebook message informing her that authorities had begun evacuating the eastern side of Paradise. Minutes later, Sprague received a text from the county sheriff telling her to evacuate immediately.

“I went, ‘Oh my gosh, what?’” Sprague recalled.

She told Evelyn to get out of the shower and told her other daughter Melody she had three minutes to grab her most precious belongings because they were about to get in the car.

“I took my arm and swept the contents of the bathroom counter into a suitcase,” Sprague said. “I was still thinking there was no way the whole town could burn down. That was just unfathomable.”

Sprague’s husband had already left the house to pick up his sons at school. He could see from his route to the school that the fire was just minutes away from reaching their home. He called Sprague desperately trying to relay the message, but she was busy packing valuables and getting her daughters ready to go.

Time to leave

As Sprague and the girls piled into the car, they could see and hear fire crackling beneath a gray sky. By the time they had traveled a quarter mile down the road, the sky had turned midnight black except for the glowing flames on the horizon.

“We got in deadlocked traffic, and there was no way to turn around, no way to get out of town,” Sprague said. “And I was not in the proper vehicle to go off-roading.”

A drive that normally would have taken five minutes took two hours that morning. Sprague actually considered abandoning the car and fleeing on foot, but they were still miles from safety, and they had a dog and turtle in tow.

“No way are my daughters leaving those animals behind,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘We’re either all going to die together in this car, or we’ll eventually start moving, and that’s what happened.”

Sprague and her daughters, and her husband and his sons, made it out alive. But the fire consumed their house and their entire neighborhood.

Given the frequency of wildfires in the state, California residents know they must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Sprague had lived through two house fires already, so she knew the importance of keeping a “to-go” box by the door. However, the family had just rearranged its garage, and a bunch of boxes were moved around. When the fire came on Nov. 8, Sprague grabbed what she thought was a box containing her daughters’ baby books, but it was the wrong one.

“That was really heart-breaking,” she said. “I didn’t have time to open the lid and look.”

The family was able to save a few other books with photos and inscriptions from their relatives, but they weren’t able to carry very much.

Sprague said the effect of the fire was akin to a huge bomb being dropped on Paradise. Melody’s best friend and neighbor moved to Utah the next day. The same has been true of their whole neighborhood, people whose homes were destroyed and who have sought refuge in other towns and states.

Sprague’s family fled to the town of Willows, about an hour from Paradise. Six people slept in one room at her father-in-law’s house. A few days after the fire, she ran an errand in Chico, a city about 14 miles from Paradise. The air in Chico was so laden with smoke that Sprague developed a sore throat and could not speak for three weeks after visiting the city.

Sprague has returned to the site of her house twice attempting to salvage whatever remained, which was almost nothing. Evelyn found a few ceramic birds that her neighbor had given her.

“My husband and I had a lot of heavy, thick ceramics,” Sprague said. “We thought we’d find things like that, but they were either smashed to pieces or the fire charred them so badly they fell apart when we touched them.”

Sprague said losing a house, a neighborhood and even a whole town has been “deflating, disheartening and demoralizing.”

“I can’t think about it. To think about it is too much for the heart or the brain to handle,” she said.