Experienced volunteer returns to Triangle from helping recovery from Camp Fire

Local News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A local volunteer is now back home in the Triangle after spending weeks helping the victims of California’s deadliest wildfire.

In the nearly three weeks she spent with the victims of the Camp Fire, Hillsborough native Judy Nicholson heard story after story of loss and of terror.

“They said, ‘I can’t stop thinking. I can’t stop seeing the flames in my mind on both sides of the car. I can’t stop that feeling of we’re not going to make it we’re not going to make it,'” she recalled. 

As part of the Red Cross mental health team, she listened and helped people cope. She’s responded to more than 80 disasters, but never one quite like this. 

“I’ve never been to a disaster where an entire town and most of another town are completely gone,” she said. “What I had not anticipated was the trauma that the people experienced in addition to losing everything.”  

Many she talked with described horrific scenes as they were evacuating. She said she heard a mom talk about her child having seen another person on fire. Others talked about wrecks along the road that were still burning. 

Although haunted by the memories of their narrow escape, she said many found comfort simply talking about their fears. 

“Recovery is long and difficult, and there are so many steps along the way, so in the state of mind  they’re in — which was traumatized — I think it was helpful for me to help just sort out what the next step is,” Nicholson explained. 

Although she’s volunteered for more than 20 years, she is still touched by each experience — from children’s paintings on the walls to survivors’ stories.

“Seeing a little dog on a cot and the dog was with this woman who didn’t have any family with her — that got to me because she still has that, and she is going do her best to care for that little dog and that dog is doing his very best to care for her,” Nicholson recalled. 

Now back in North Carolina, Nicholson is ready for the next time she’s needed and she hopes she brought a little peace to the hundreds who shared their stories with her. 

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