Editor’s note: A handcrafted wooden sign over the garage door is perhaps a poignant reminder of the family who lives in the neighboring home. While the “e” is damaged at the end of the first word, the message it conveys is loud and clear “Home Sweet Home.”
Like the sign, this family has known its share of hardships. But their determination, Christian beliefs and togetherness as a family send a strong message of resilience to others.
The following is a story of how seven members of the Barclay family remembers the early morning hours that not only consumed their home, but also changed their lives in so many ways. This is an intense story with graphic memories.
It was the night of Dec. 21, 2011. The Barclay family, then of Portola, and their grandmother, were “nestled all snug in their beds.”
It’s Zachary, who admits he stayed up late as usual that night, who remembers putting some laundry in the dryer, turning it on and then going to bed. Although the cause of the fire was never determined, it’s believed it was the dryer.
Something awakens Todd Barclay, the father. He becomes aware of a glow on the ceiling in the hallway that links the family’s bedrooms. “I was thinking it was the woodstove,” he remembers, and sat up in bed.
“I wake up to my husband standing at the bottom of the bed,” said Carla Barclay. “And he was saying ‘What was that?’”
Carla said she also remembers seeing a glow on the ceiling and her husband moving toward it.
What Todd sees as he leaves the bedroom are flames licking across the ceiling, and the curtains beginning to flame.
“Get the kids out! Get ‘em up!” Carla remembers Todd shouting.
Dressed in only his briefs and barefooted, Todd grabs the fire extinguisher kept near the woodstove.
“I was really hot and sweaty,” Jeremey, 17, remembers as he lay on the bottom bunk of a room he shared with his younger sister, Makiah, 9. “She was screaming when I woke up.”
The thin wall that separated his room from the dining room is extremely hot and starting to burn. This is the wall that separates the bedroom from the dining room where the Barclays have their washer and dryer.
Jeremey remembers seeing his little sister’s hair in flames and needs to act. He opens the window and climbs out into the cold night air. He is barefoot and dressed in what he’s worn to bed.
“It was just a choice,” he says about his quick decision to go out the window rather than turn toward the hallway.
“It was a smart choice,” said Todd.
“It felt like I was trying to crawl through a heater vent on the floor,” Jeremey says as he wiggled through the metal-framed window. He’s big for his 17 years, tall and hefty. He ignores the scrapes and cuts as he squeezes through the opening. When he’s on the frozen ground he turns to Makiah who’s on the top bunk. The flames are licking through the wall as they consume it.
“Makiah! Jump to me!” But she seems to be afraid to make the leap toward her brother’s waiting arms.
“If you don’t jump to me, you’re going to die!” he screams to her.
And suddenly there she is. Her clothes — her favorite tights and a long-sleeved top — are burned and her hair is still on fire. He grabs something and tries to pat her out. Then he tells her to run to the front of the house and get to safety.
Carla remembers getting her oldest son, Curtis, 19, to get Zachary, 13, up. They share a room.
“My mother got up and I saw her, and then she went back to her room,” Carla says.
“I was on the top bunk and I never fall out of bed, but I fell out of bed,” says Curtis, the oldest of the Barclay children. Somehow he thinks he knew even before he was awake that something was terribly wrong.
“I find dad trying to put out the fire and I tried to remember what to do in this kind of thing,” he said. He thought about getting water from the sink, and then thought getting it from the bathtub would be faster.” There isn’t time for anything.
Curtis then remembers going back to his room and leads his younger brother Zachary down the hallway. “Grandmother was right behind me,” he said. Then says she has to return to her room to get her glasses, her hearing aids and her watch.
There’s nothing Curtis can do for his grandmother right then. He’s concentrating on getting Zachary outside. He sees his parents on the floor of the dining room for some reason and he throws his brother over them to the door.
Zachary remembers this part of escaping the house differently, but not a single family member argues with him. He remembers seeing his parents on the floor in the dining room and takes a giant leap over them.
“I ran out the door, opened the door and then shut the door,” he says and then he tries to yell for help, but his lungs are so filled with smoke that it felt like hands were clamped over his mouth and all that he can do is mumble.
In the confusion of trying to get themselves and their five children out of a house that was exploding into flames, Carla didn’t realize that her mother hadn’t returned. It would be the last time she would see her. Donna Richardson, 73, died in the fire.
At some point, her mind not clearly focusing on what to do or how to function, Carla says she opens the front door to let the smoke out. “I couldn’t see because of all the smoke and it was burning my eyes.” If she hadn’t opened the door the family couldn’t have escaped, but the air fanned the flames.
In the confusion of getting her children outside, Carla remembers ordering Nolan, then 7, “to run through the flames! To get out!”
“My mom is yelling to me to ‘get up!’” Nolan recalls. His bed is made of metal and he remembers how hot it has gotten.
He remembers worrying about his favorite stuffed animal and wants to take it along, but somehow it’s forgotten and he’s walking out of the house through the flames. “I made a huge jump,” and he’s outside.
“As I’m running I look behind me and I see blood and I looked at my feet and they were bloody,” Nolan remembers.
To explain how Todd and Carla ended up on the floor of a burning house, Carla said before she knows what’s happening Todd is tackling her and she’s thrown to the ground. Then he begins trying to put out the flames on her head by hitting them with something.
Carla, six years after the incident, said it’s odd what you think of during a time like that. She remembers being on the floor and thinking that the correct thing to do is roll to put out the flames. “How am I going to stand on my head?”
Todd remembers Carla tripped on something and fell. That’s when he began trying to put out her hair.
Moving on, Todd said he’s finally outside. He rounds the side of the mobile just in time to see his second son, Jeremey, crawling out the window.
Jeremey says that after he got Makiah off to a safer place, he tries to find a better place for himself. At this point the side porch collapses in flames. A car is blocking his way so there’s no choice but to run across the flaming remains of the porch.
“I ran around the back alley,” he said. There’s a driveway separating two homes and a huge pine tree. It’s beginning to catch fire, he remembers. He’s also aware that the neighbor’s house is burning.
Eighty-six-year-old Julie Ballard is still asleep as Jeremey enters the house. The hallway is in flames and he finds her in bed with her two cats watching everything.
As he reaches out to touch her he remembers her saying, “Are you robbing me?”
He quickly explains that her mobile is burning and carries her out. By this time, some of the house has collapsed down to the steel support beams. He carries her across them and a neighbor is there to take her.
“I thought Carla had Makiah,” Todd remembers as he watches Jeremey escape the inferno. Somehow he knows that his mother-in-law is still inside. He meets up with Curtis and the two of them climb up on a swamp cooler to access her bedroom window.
Curtis has found something and breaks out the glass and attempts to climb in through the window. “The heat was so intense,” and the smoke is so thick it makes it impossible to see inside.
“The smoke was so intense,” Todd said. “It was just blackness.” He tries to boost Curtis up so he has better access to climb inside, but he’s hurt. His back is badly burned.
“I could hear her,” Curtis said as he feels around on her bed trying to reach her. And then he can’t hear her anymore. The words, the noises have stopped.
As Curtis retells this part of the story he suddenly stops talking. The pain he experienced at the moment he realized he couldn’t help his grandmother is still deep and raw.
“I was angry at myself. Angry at the world,” Curtis, now 25, remembers about that night.
On his way to find his family, he remembers encountering a 6-foot reinforced steel gate. “And I chucked it!” No one disputes this feat.
“I think I’ve stepped on glass,” Todd said, because the bottoms of his feet feel like duct tape. It’s then that Todd collapses on Pam Kelly’s lawn across the street. He can’t go on. He’s seen Carla and his children, and knows Donna is beyond his help.
Curtis reaches the Kelly lawn. He also thinks he’s stepped on glass from the window he’s broken.
“I used to be a lifeguard,” he says, and from first aid training he received, Curtis realizes he’s going into shock. His entire back, the top of one arm and the fronts of his legs are burned.
As Zachary makes his way to his family gathering on the neighbor’s lawn, he realizes that he has one sock on and one off. It’s when his foot comes into contact with asphalt that he realizes it hurts.
“I saw the windows breaking out in the living room,” Zachary says as he remembers looking at what had been their home. “I was going to go back in to get my grandmother,” he remembers, but the windows continue to break and he can feel the intense heat of the fire from the curb where he stands. He understands he can’t attempt it.
Zachary walks over to Pam Kelly’s bench. He remembers to be polite, even in these extreme conditions, and asks her if he can sit down. It’s then that he sees Curtis and his dad on the lawn. He also realizes that Jeremey is with his mother in the neighbor’s house.
“I have very poor vision,” Zachary says, and he’s left his glasses in the house. They’re usually the first thing he grabs in the morning and the last thing he takes off at night.
As Zachary tries to take in the setting around him, a fire engine pulls up and aims the water cannon toward the flames. As the water gushes toward the house, the spray comes back on those at the Kelly house. “It’s like ice falling on you,” Zachary said. “It was raining ice — it was horrible!”
“Someone gave Zachary a blanket,” Todd says.
While Zachary accepts the blanket it seems to trap the heat against his burns. He’s conflicted. Should he suffer the pain or the cold?
As Todd lies on the lawn, he’s aware his brother-in-law, Michael Ramsey of Chilcoot, is standing beside him. Todd moves slightly. “I thought you were dead!” he remembers Michael saying.
Outside the inferno
Outside, it’s confusion as various members of the family try to call for help. One neighbor answers his door, but can’t help, Carla says.
One neighbor can’t help because in the confusion she’s locked herself out of her house and access to her phone.
Another neighbor opens the door to let them into his home. Carla said that as she is trying to climb the front steps and thinks she is slipping on ice. Her feet are bare and it’s so slippery she has to pull herself up each step.
She becomes aware that she is slipping on her own blood. When she walked across the synthetic carpet in the burning home it was so hot it took the skin off of the bottoms of her feet. Todd said some carpeting stuck to their feet.
Although her neighbor graciously invites her into his home, he has white carpeting and she’s so concerned that she will get blood on it, she insists on standing in the entryway and he brings her a chair on wheels.
Then someone suggests she soak her damaged feet in water. She remembers thinking that’s a good idea and puts her feet in a container of water while fire trucks and ambulances arrive.
While this is happening, little Nolan, with all the drama a 7-year-old can put into a situation is screaming “My face! My face!”
Carla remembers seeing her daughter, Makiah, and she’s “just sitting there. I think that she’s okay.”
She didn’t know then that Makiah’s extensive burns would keep her in Shriners Hospital in Sacramento for nearly four weeks.
“Then Jeremey comes in and tries to call my sisters. Odessie [Welch of Portola] didn’t answer the phone because she’s asleep. And then he gets Melody [Ramsey of Chilcoot].”
“I haven’t seen mother yet,” she remembers telling Melody.
It seems like everything is taking a long time, yet happening so quickly.
“It felt like forever,” Zachary says. “Nobody could get there fast enough.”
When the ambulance arrives she remembers someone asking her, “Who do you think is worse?”
Carla said she’s still learning of her own injuries and hasn’t evaluated her children’s condition.
And then she realizes that Makiah is very hurt and she’s never been away from them. Carla has home-schooled her children, so they — especially the younger ones — weren’t conditioned to being away from her.
“They’re going to help you,” she remembers saying to Makiah who seems to be watching everything, but is totally dazed. “She’s not talking and everyone else is screaming.”
And then Carla sees a member of their church, EMT Hayley Evans, arrive with another ambulance from Loyalton. Carla is relieved. Makiah won’t be alone with strangers.
Carla remembers a man suggesting he carry her to a waiting gurney to get her to the ambulance. “I’m a lot heavier than I look,” she says. He gets more men and they roll her chair carefully to the edge of the neighbor’s porch and then lift her onto the gurney.
Once in the ambulance she’s aware that Nolan is sitting there and Todd is lying on a gurney next to her.
Instead of settling down and allowing others to care for her, she is worrying about the rest of her children. Her role as a protective mother surges, but she can’t leave the gurney. Maybe when they’ve seen to her needs at the hospital she can help them, she remembers thinking. She doesn’t understand that it will be 10 days before she’s better.
But there’s no solution now. She remembers the ambulance traveling over an incredibly bumpy road — one that’s so rutted it shouldn’t have been used, but there’s no alternative. The main road is filled with emergency vehicles and fire hoses. It’s also become a sheet of ice because of the water being used to put out what have become three fires. Someone brings a tractor and carves out a new trail for the ambulance.
And the pain is incredible. “It was unbelievable,” Todd says, of the burns.
Curtis said that he receives morphine when he is loaded into an ambulance with Zachary, but he’s concerned about his brother who’s trying to reject the painkiller, because he’s afraid of needles.
When Todd arrives at Eastern Plumas Health Care, he can’t believe the number of people available and thinks there must be other emergencies.
Carla still thinks she will get to the hospital, they’ll fix her up and she’ll be able to help her children.
When the ambulance arrives at EPHC, she’s immediately flown to Renown Medical Center in Reno.
Todd said someone asked him about his last tetanus shot. He doesn’t remember and gets another one along with something to battle the overwhelming pain.
This becomes the pattern for the family. They’re transported to EPHC by ambulance and then taken to Renown for further assessment. Four helicopters are kept busy transporting the burn victims.
At some point Carla sees Makiah at Renown and tells her what she knows in her heart is true, that her grandmother didn’t survive. She reminded her “To be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord.”
When she sees Nolan again, she knows how afraid he will be, she tells her sister Melodie “not to leave Nolan.”
Carla also tells someone that they’ll have to meet Makiah at Shriners, and Melodie will be with her for much of the following weeks.
Todd’s sister, Tina Marler, shows up in the emergency room. And then Curtis, in a wheelchair, finds her room.
Although she can only see one side of him from her bed, she understands that his back and right side are blistered from the flames. Later, she will learn that Makiah’s burns are the worst, but Curtis’ are the second most extensive. Makiah’s burns cover 42 percent of her body; Curtis’ cover 40 percent.
From Renown, Carla is again separated from her family and flown in a small plane to U.C. Davis Medical Hospital in Sacramento. Todd, Curtis and Jeremey would join her there. The others were taken to Shriners.
As Carla settles into what will become a routine for the next several days, a nurse asks if there’s anyone who can help make decisions for her children. Not understanding why, she says that Melodie could do everything. She said they think alike and she’s known her niece and nephews all their lives.
There will come a time when Carla is up and about, and that without the identification she lost in the fire, she has no access to her children in Shriners.
Process to recover
They try to release Nolan first, but there’s no home for him to go to. His family is in two hospitals. They keep him for a few days until another family member can take him.
Discussing their various procedures, Zachary describes how painful it is to have his feet washed. He said it was agony, but there’s Nolan in the same room giggling his head off over the same procedure. He can’t fathom it.
The rest of the family nods in agreement. Getting their feet washed and scraped wasn’t something to laugh about.
In between treatments, various members of the family try to find things to do. Without his glasses, Zachary is having a difficult time. Then Sherrie Morgan, the head of the Long Valley Charter School that Carla’s affiliated with, manages to get eyeglass prescriptions filled for Zachary, Jeremey and Todd, and life becomes a little more bearable.
As soon as the children are able, Morgan is there on a regular basis to provide lessons. She doesn’t want them to fall behind. Zachary seems less than pleased, but puts up with it.
For family members, therapy becomes a regular part of their routines. It hurts, but it’s necessary.
As their feet heal, they learn they’ve become very sensitive. As Carla is learning to walk again, even with slippers on she can feel things, especially the slightly raised bumps on the hospital floors for the blind to detect. While a great help for others, to Carla they’re painful.
Todd said he notices that the traction he once had with his bare feet is no longer there. He especially notices it in the shower or when swimming.
For Curtis there were surgeries to help correct the damage the fire and heat did to his skin. He would remain in the hospital the second longest.
When Todd is released from the hospital after 11 days — one day longer than his wife — he has to finding lodging. The Kiwanis House provides a tiny room and a bed for two weeks. Then he moves to the Ronald McDonald House. They’re both close to the hospitals.
He’s also trying to find a new rental for his family. He had no luck in Portola, and finds one in Coldsprings, Nevada. As a Nevada Department of Transportation highway construction engineer, living near Reno isn’t bad for Todd, but the location doesn’t work for Carla and the children who are still in school — they’re affiliated with a charter school in California. And their medical care was also in California. Todd locates a home in Vinton.
Todd said the community came out in support. One man, his name he didn’t learn, purchased $1,000 worth of Christmas gifts for them and launched a fundraiser. Someone else purchased five new bicycles for the children.
He’s still overwhelmed by the response, not just from the sacrifices made by his and Carla’s families, but from their church and others they didn’t know.
Although three of the Barclay children now have jobs, their church and their family are intensely important. For Nolan and Makiah, the sense of family is something they’ve come to expect and accept.
Long road to recovery
It’s been a long road to recovery for Makiah Barclay and it isn’t over.
At 15, she’s received 23 or 24 surgeries to help correct the damage caused to her torso, arms, neck and an area just beneath her chin.
Makiah was 9-years-old the night her family’s doublewide mobile home caught fire. “It was really, like, vague,” she remembers of the actual incident.
“Jeremey told me to jump out the window. I was on the top bunk (in a room they shared). I don’t remember jumping,” she said. “I do remember flying through the air and feeling really bad.”
There’s evidence that a back draft eliminated Makiah’s indecision about climbing through the window to her brother Jeremey.
She landed in her brother’s arms, but what she remembers is that he started hitting her with some kind of helmet he picked up to put out the flames that were burning her and the night clothes she was wearing.
As Makiah watched her house burn, she remembers saying, “I love you family!” She was referring to a collection of mini Barbie dolls she owned. “I nearly had the complete set.”
Besides the loss of her treasured dolls, Makiah remembers being upset that her favorite pair of leggings was destroyed. “But they kept my legs from getting burned.”
She remembers the ambulance ride and EMT Hayley Evans being with her. They were going so fast she drew up her legs to keep herself on the gurney. That’s when Evans knocked on the glass divider and asked the driver to slow down a little bit.
She remembers seeing the early morning lights of Reno from the helicopter. “It was so cool,” she said.
At Shriners, Makiah said she had to endure two baths a day. They were very painful. Known for her independence, Makiah told the nurses she wanted to learn to take care of herself. A nurse seemed to understand and showed her exactly what to do. Bathing took longer, but Makiah said that she was allowed to take all the time she needed and the pain was far less.
The compression garments that were carefully created just to fit Makiah were a nuisance. They were designed to fit very tightly over her burned arms and torso. The exact fit was critical in order to keep her new skin from growing into ridges or bumps.
Makiah would need several sets of garments over the years to keep up with her growth.
Surgeries were to ease growing skin so it wouldn’t tighten too much and would allow for flexibility. Skin was also taken from Makiah’s thighs and sewn and stapled to heavily burned sections along her arms and torso. “The staples hurt a lot,” Makiah said.Although Makiah’s been advised to wear long sleeved shirts to protect her delicate skin, she can’t be bothered. She wears what she likes and does the activities she wants, again showing that independence.
Her arms are heavily scarred, but she ignores it. Sometimes people stare, but she’s learned to deal with it.
Except for a darker place on her neck, her face is undamaged. She’s fortunate and understands that. She could shut herself away and decide to miss out of many of life’s opportunities. But that’s not Makiah. From the advantages afforded on their Vinton lot with goats, chickens, ducks and a tree swing and the pros and cons of having four brothers, Makiah doesn’t miss out on adventures.
And to show the world that nothing is holding her back, the 15-year-old is heavily involved in martial arts at Feather River College.
Family members involved in the 2011 Portola fire and their ages at that time:
Donna Richardson, grandmother, 73
Todd Barclay, father
Carla Barclay, mother
Curtis Barclay, 19
Jeremey Barclay, 17
Zachary Barclay, 13
Makiah Barclay, 9
Nolan Barclay, 7