The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.

Mary Johnson first met the woman who would become her dear friend in 1979 inside Carol Collins’ office supply store in Cloverdale.

Collins was wearing a big smock dress, and Johnson made a giant faux pas: “I walked in and asked her when she was due, like she was pregnant,” Johnson said, laughing.

Collins was not pregnant. In fact, Collins wasn’t all that maternal in her life.

“She was anything but grandmotherly,” Johnson said. “She could bake chocolate-chip cookies, but she usually baked them from a tube.”

But rather than being offended by Johnson’s assumption, Collins let out a laugh.

“She said, ‘I’m not pregnant, I’m just fat,’” Johnson said, recalling the wit and humor that Collins carried through her life.

A world traveler, real estate agent, journalist and fiercely loyal friend, Collins died on Oct. 9 when the Tubbs fire consumed her Coffey Park neighborhood, and with it the house on Hemlock Street she purchased in December 2014 after separating from her husband, Johnson said.

Collins, 76, had been prescribed pain medication after suffering several falls in recent years, and Johnson, the executor and trustee of her estate, believes she slept through the fire.

Following their first meeting, the two developed a very close friendship over the years.

“Carol was pretty hard to describe,” Johnson said. “She was a real character. She was a little flamboyant, very outspoken. She told you how it was. … People either loved Carol or dodged her.”

Once she did befriend people, her loyalty and generosity was practically unparalleled.

Learning to develop those relationships was hard for Collins, Johnson said.

She was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents separated when she was a child and for much of her youth and many adult years, her family relationships were more chasmic than close.

She spent her final years fixing those relationships — reuniting with her mother and a half-brother in Missouri in recent years, achievements Collins was very proud of, Johnson said.

“She was a complicated person,” Johnson said. “I miss her dreadfully.”

Collins is survived by three half-brothers: Kent Collins, of Columbia, Missouri, Paul H. Collins, of Tiger, Georgia, and Todd Collins, of Philadelphia; four step-children: Sandi Hamilton, of Sparta, Wisconsin; David Swasey, of San Diego; Roxanne Swasey, of Oakland; and Kim Johnson, of Lebanon, Ohio; and her ex-husband, Jim Swasey, of Sonora.

A celebration of her life will be held Jan. 28. Anyone interested in attending should email carolcollinsbigdo@gmail.com.