Early in the morning of Jan. 16, 2014 the Colby Fire raced down a ridge toward Gena and John Palo’s Glendora home. John Palo spotted the flames and yelled for his family to wake up.
Gena Palo said the couple and their two kids — Breanna, then 22, and Gavin, then 13 — didn’t have much time to gather their belongings.
"We grabbed our kids’ pictures, that’s about all we got out," she says.
Her son grabbed a few favorite things.
"It was really sweet because he grabbed my dad’s purple heart that he gave him and he grabbed his puppy that he’s had since he was a baby," she recalls.
The Palo family had worked hard to have proper brush clearance and the house was made of brick with a red tile roof. But those measures weren't enough.
The house was a total loss, but Palo says she drew comfort from an unusual dream she'd had the night before.
In her dream she was receiving gifts from strangers and she didn’t know why, except that she had to trust that others were taking care of her.
"I knew that something was going to happen and that we were going to be taken care of," she says. "I wasn’t ever angry. I was at peace with it."
The family had to find a temporary place to live after the fire. Both parents had to go back to work full-time while dealing with the aftermath. Breanna had just graduated college and had moved home for a few months before going to graduate school.
"I did a lot of praying"
The family's Christian faith was key to getting them through the ordeal, says Palo, who adds that she spent a lot of time on the floor of her closet in their rented townhouse with the lights out, deep in prayer.
"I did a lot of praying because there were nights that I thought, 'I can’t handle this,'" she says.
And of course there were the long battles with insurance companies.
"Right out of the gate we knew we weren’t going to have everything covered," she says.
Palo says she learned that homeowners insurance covers very little outside of the actual house, which meant her detached garage, landscaping, stone walls and a trailer were not covered.
But the Palos were always determined to rebuild on the same spot.
The property has been in the family for generations. John Palo's grandfather bought it in the 1940s.
Fortunately, before the fire they had been saving for a remodel with money earned from Gena’s job teaching 8th grade math and John’s job as a UPS night manager.
A community steps up
And like in Palo's dream, there was unexpected help.
Within hours of the fire, friends, family, fellow teachers and their church youth group mobilized fundraisers, organized gifts for the kids and set up a GoFundMe page that quickly raised $25,000.
"I told my kids when we were sitting around opening all the stuff Gavin got from his school, 'You guys need to remember how lucky we are, there are people who go through this and no support and no family,'" she says.
The money the community raised was a huge help at first - especially to build a retaining wall below their burned out home to protect neighbors from mudslides in the weeks after the fire.
And with the insurance money they did get, along with their savings and a construction loan, the rebuilding finally got underway after about a year.
There were a lot of new code requirements that extended the process.
Palo says one of the biggest ones was "the fire hydrant we had to put in, which I’m grateful to have, that alone was $45,000."
Palo says the new house had to be set farther away from the hillside than the original structure. The driveway had to be paved and widened. And trees had to be removed.
"It's like a marathon"
Inside the nearly finished house, crews are finishing up bathroom plumbing, installing cabinets and starting work on the finishes.
Palo points to one of the walls.
"We were able to save some of the brick, so on this wall in here we’re going to put some of the old house brick back on the wall just to kind of have something" as a memento, she says.
"People have asked us ... they’re like, 'You rebuilt in the same place?'" Palo says. "It was never even a thought in my head ... We got married up here, I brought my kids home from the hospital; this is my home."
The Palos expect to be in their new home by Christmas. And they'll be bringing a new member with them: their son-in-law, who married Breanna in the midst of the rebuild.
Palo says the wedding was a beautiful reminder of all they have together as a family, as well as a reason to slow down from the madness of battles over construction, insurance and money.
"It’s like a marathon; you’re running and there’s days you’re going to go full speed, and days you are going to walk and days you have to sit down and put it all aside. You can’t do it every day," she says.
It’s advice she wants to pass on to other families facing the same loss.
Meanwhile, Palo says the family has another project in addition to rebuilding the house.
"We’ve been trying to pay it forward so we kept track of what everyone donated to us," she says. "Our goal as a family is to pay that all back to others."
The Palos have chosen to do that by financially supporting local community groups and families in need.
Series: Forever Fire Season
This story is part of KPCC’s in-depth coverage of the reality of year-round fire season in Southern California. Over the next few weeks we'll cover those affected by the summer's destructive wildfires and efforts to develop better firefighting tools and reduce the risk of property damage.