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Read all Sonoma Give stories here

Kindnesses began flowing to Arthur and Jill Dawson on the first night of October’s Nuns fire, when their Glen Ellen home burned. The couple didn’t anticipate how much caring would continue to roll in during the following weeks and months.

“The outpouring of generosity has been humbling and inspiring,” Arthur said, “from temporary lodging to GoFundMe support, it’s been people helping each other.”

He and Jill have been moved to tears too many times to count. “The immensity of this experience continues to overwhelm me,” she said, “not so much the lost home but the sheer volume of kindness.”

Evacuated at 2 a.m. the night of the fire with son Larkin, family dog Pepper and cats Peeka and Boo, Jill and Arthur fled to a friend’s house on Madrone Road. At 9 a.m., Madrone was evacuated, and the Dawsons found refuge with other friends in Boyes Hot Springs. A few days later, when Boyes was under an evacuation advisory and the air had become unfit to breathe, the Dawsons headed for Nicasio.

“People never hesitated,” Arthur said. “They just took us right in.”

The Dawsons stayed in five different friends’ homes for several weeks while they looked for longer-term housing. Jill blogged about their search as it wore on: “We’d begun to cast the net wider and farther, even as rents began to rise, houses became less available, and we learned that having pets makes it much more difficult to find a rental.”

Then, while fires were still raging in the county, longtime neighbors Rich and Margie Foster called.

“They lived just outside the burn zone,” Arthur said, “and were going to put a trailer on their property. They invited us to stay there while we rebuilt our home. They said, ‘Look around, and if you find something better, just let us know, but right now we’re holding this spot for you.’”

The offer simply floored the Dawsons. Up until then, they hadn’t known the Fosters well. Arthur recalls that he taught one of their sons poetry some 20 years ago: “We’re in the same neighborhood, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time with them.”

Jill recalled that Rich and Margie had been flooded out of their home on Sonoma Creek several years back, and believes that their empathy came from having had a similar experience.

“They really knew firsthand how it felt to lose everything,” she said.

Then when the Dawsons visited the newly purchased 30-foot trailer, it posed some challenges.

“It really hit us how tough it would be on our 5-foot-10, 17-year-old son,” she said. “He’d really loved his own room and space, and there was no separate room for him.” That’s when someone suggested moving a second trailer to the Fosters for Larkin. Margie and Rich were game and even owned a candidate trailer for the job.

Larkin’s first comment when he saw the tiny teardrop trailer was, “It’s adorable.” Later the Fosters found Larkin an even a bigger trailer, a vintage cab-over RV, and he’s now settled in nicely.

Arthur’s still amazed by all the additional work the Fosters put in. “Rich dug a ditch to put in a bigger sewage holding tank, added new water lines and electricity. Margie brought us food. They suggested a work party to build a patio between the trailers — they even supplied the pavers. Their generosity has just been astounding.”

Read all Sonoma Give stories here

When another neighbor needed a place to stay as well, the Fosters bought a third trailer. “Nick had been burned out of his rental and was really bad off,” Arthur said. “The Fosters were just as generous with him.” The property now has a three-unit mini-neighborhood they’re calling the AOK Trailer Park.

Financial arrangements are still being worked out, but Arthur said he and Jill will buy the trailer. “Then when we leave, we’ll sell it. So it’s an affordable solution.” And a cozy one. Jill writes that all the human and animal members of the family are beginning to feel at home.

Other generous offers keep coming, to the point where Jill is regularly moved to tears.

“From help with pets,” she said, “to delivered meals, a check from the Redwood Credit Union-United Way fundraiser, gift cards from the Kenwood School community, gifts from the local Rotary Club and local businesses, a wonderful holiday party thrown for us by dear friends and filled with great people — this is just the tip of the iceberg of the incredible outpouring of love we’ve felt.”

The Dawsons have no desire to leave the neighborhood, even though they no longer believe that their Glen Ellen lot is immune to wildfire. Arthur said that “as a historical ecologist, I should’ve known better. We weren’t in the 1964 wildfire footprint, so I just assumed we’d never burn. But in 1923, fire did sweep down from the Mayacamas, all the way to the valley floor. The winds were so strong that people said they ‘couldn’t stand against them.’ It could certainly happen again, so we’ll definitely build our house more fire safe this time.”

For the community’s part, people are happy to keep the Dawsons in Glen Ellen. Whether it’s Jill’s preschool students and parents, her Twilight Choir friends and vocalists, Arthur’s California Poets in the Schools’ colleagues and students, his environmental community, or neighbors they’ve lived alongside for 25 years, the Dawsons are adored. Friends say they’re patient, caring, giving, imaginative and just plain fun.

“We’ve had many years to get to know this community,” Arthur said. “If we’d been here for only five years, maybe none of this amazing support would be happening.”

He’s got advice, too, for anyone looking to help people who have suffered trauma such as losing a home: “Ask someone what he needs before you give it. There’s a thing called ‘receiver exhaustion,’ and it’s real. When so much comes someone’s way that even to refuse it is exhausting, they can be burdened by unneeded things given with good intention.”

Meanwhile, he has been learning to receive gracefully.

“That’s been one of the biggest lessons of all this,” he said.

Another big lesson is the love, Jill said. “We cannot express our gratitude enough and feel very loved. And love is all. That’s it.”

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