As flames started to rip through their communities on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, people in Northern California’s Butte County picked up what they could and left, fleeing a firestorm with little more than the clothes on their back.
“I got a call from my dad saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to talk to you again,”https://www.nbcbayarea.com/” Jessie Mercer recalled, one year after the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded California history — destroyed her family home and her art studio. “I embraced my father four hours later after he did make it safely down. He pulled out his keys, and in that moment, I realized that we had very little left, but one thing in common: we all took our keys.”
A simple set of keys set Mercer off on a year-long journey to bring healing and hope to her fire-ravaged community.
“For the last year, I have put 19,000 miles on my truck,” Mercer said. “I have met people in hotels, in tents. I ended up with almost 18,000 keys from my people.”
Keys that once opened doors to homes, cars and businesses were rendered useless after the fire. The blaze wiped out 18,804 homes, businesses and other structures and incinerated countless vehicles in its path.
But to Mercer, the keys to the burned property still had purpose. That’s why she put in the time to bind the keys together and create a majestic bird-like sculpture called the “Ridge Key Phoenix.”
“These are all the burned keys,” Mercer said, pointing to the bottom of the sculpture. “This is what we’re building up from, destruction, sorrow, fire, the pain. The keys to the deceased are the ones that are the highest so that they can guide us.”
As communities in Butte County continue to rebuild, Mercer hopes her piece of art can inspire victims to draw strength from one another.
“We are so resilient, and when you stand tall with enough people, you can do anything,” she said. “When you create, you have more than you had. And up here, we had nothing, but we had some keys.”