Iconic image of toddler protecting doll symbolizes trauma of Valley fire

Late last month, the photo of a toddler clutching a doll took news outlets and social media by storm. She found the doll in a Cloverdale thrift store after she and her family outran the Valley fire, bringing just the clothes they were wearing.

The iconic image of 3-year-old Gracie Carpenter has come to symbolize the trauma of the fast-moving Lake County fire and is now being used on a poster promoting a fundraiser for fire victims.

In the photograph taken by her mother, Gracie is protecting the doll she named “Biggie,” even covering her eyes so the doll cannot see the fire and be afraid. At one point, noticing smoke in the distance, Gracie was overheard telling her doll, “It’s OK if you’s scared, but I’m you’s mama, and if the fire comes here, I’ll kick him!”

Gracie’s mom, 35-year old Diane Derenia Carpenter, says, “I take pictures of my children all the time because I think they are so adorable, but when I saw this one, I knew instantly it was something special. I immediately showed it to my mom and sister, who were as taken with it as I.”

On Sept. 12, Gracie, her twin brother Eli, her mom and her 36-year-old dad, Curtis, were returning from a family visit in Lower Lake when they realized just how close the fire was to their home in Hidden Valley Lake. They turned onto Hartman Road and tried to drive to Diane’s brother’s house, but were thwarted by the approaching fire and roads that had become parking lots.

The wind was intense, the air was filled with ash and smoke, and Gracie screamed in fear when she saw the flames flaring up outside her car window.

“It’s amazing how loud fire is,” Diane Carpenter recalled.

They inched their way to Highway 29 but were unable to merge. Still wearing her bathing suit from earlier that day, Diane jumped from the car, ran onto Highway 29 and created a human traffic break. Once they were safely headed north, they reached the relative safety of Lower Lake and, with 18 relatives from five families, sought refuge in Cloverdale at the home of Gracie’s great-grandparents, Jim and Karen Derenia.

A video from their harrowing escape posted on Facebook was viewed more than 382,000 times.

A week of uncertainty followed before they were allowed to go home. The Carpenters were overjoyed to find that all the houses on their street survived, but were saddened to learn that their aunt and uncle and each of their four adult children lost their homes.

Back home, the Carpenters found that all of the food in their refrigerator had spoiled, so they spent their first night at home eating canned food and watching a movie while Gracie and Eli went through their toys.

The twins had heard about children in Washington who lost their toys in wildfires, and they wanted to share some of theirs. Each chose three stuffed animals and some books, all of which their mom then wrapped up and donated in their names.

Gracie considered giving Biggie away but decided against it because she said her other dollies need their mama. It seems Gracie is Biggie’s mama, and Biggie is all the other dolls’ mama.

Diane Carpenter said her daughter still asks about the fire and does not totally understand that firefighters put it out.

“We took them and my sister’s two little ones to the area on Hartman Road where they had seen the fire so they could see for themselves it was gone and they didn’t need to be afraid anymore,” she said. It took about three weeks for the smell of smoke to dissipate and, while life is slowly getting back to normal, things still feel different.

“We don’t sleep very well anymore,” she said. “I’m always checking the windows at night looking for a red glow.”

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