May 21, 2019

Grateful for Hanukkah in a Paradise Postponed

Milena Ovseevich and Elijah Pine Cohn with Bonzai Photos by Milena Ovseevich

After losing their home in the Camp Fire in Northern California, Milena Ovseevich, 30, and her boyfriend, Elijah Pine Cohn, 23, have had to put their dreams on hold. 

The couple met in December 2017, drawn together by their Russian roots and their love of nature. Ovseevich, an herbalist and alternative healer, was born in the former Soviet Union. Her family moved to Haifa when she was 2, and then to Sunland when she was a teenager. Cohn, an ecological landscape designer and permaculturist, grew up in Mount Shasta in Northern California. 

“We have a lot of similarities and a lot of passion for healing the earth, bringing people together and connecting back to the earth,” Ovseevich told the Journal. 

At the beginning of 2018, the couple bought an RV and headed up the coast. They spent the first few months working on a vegetable farm near Chico, until someone introduced them to 13 acres of land that was available to rent in Concow, near Paradise. 

Said Ovseevich, “We wanted to create this beautiful abundant land, where like-minded people come together to share the bounty of the land, grow food and contribute to the community with their unique individual skills. Kind of like a kibbutz.”

The owners were happy for Ovseevich and Cohn to rent the property. “They [told us], ‘do whatever you want. Your vision is beautiful. This land needs some work.’ And they were really supportive of our dream,” Ovseevich said.

“I don’t know what would have happened if our friend [hadn’t been] there to wake us up.”
— Milena Ovseevich

The couple spent the next six months developing and investing in the land. Friends came to help, leveling the ground and planting trees and wildflowers. But on the morning of Nov. 8, the couple were awakened in their RV by knocking on their door. One of their friends who was staying on the property had spotted the Camp Fire on the hill adjoining the property.

“The first thing we did was put our dog in the car and check on everyone — our landlord, three workers and two other people on the parcel next door — who were on the property,” Ovseevich said. “Our landlord was packing quickly and was about to come get us.” 

Ovseevich and Cohn grabbed a few things, jumped in their car and quickly made their way down the trail. “At that point the fire was already cresting down the ridge, very close to our land and smoke was everywhere,” Ovseevich recalled. “We were scared [we would be] stranded and we were in a state of panic.”

As they were trying to flee, Cohn remembered that a friend on the property, Theo, had a van with a dead battery. The couple quickly turned around and went to rescue Theo and three workers who were supposed to be leaving with him. 

“Elijah grabbed our pickup truck and loaded [everyone] in it,” Ovseevich said. “We rushed down the road and made it safely to the dome gas station where all the evacuees from Concow had gathered.”

Growing permaculture food gardens for the community.

A few days later, Ovseevich and Cohn received photos of the property from a neighbor who was rescuing animals in the area. Everything was gone. Their RV, Theo’s van, the developed land. Miraculously, the woodshed survived.

“Everybody on our property managed to leave,” Ovseevich said. “We were very lucky to get out, but some of our friends in Paradise weren’t so lucky. I don’t know what would have happened if our friend [hadn’t been] there to wake us up.”

Ovseevich and Cohn have not yet been able to return to the property. The roads to Concow are still closed. They have been bouncing between friends, their landlord’s other house in Chico and Cohn’s family in Mount Shasta.

“We wanted to create this beautiful abundant land, where like-minded people come together to share the bounty of the land, grow food and contribute to the community. Kind of like a kibbutz.” — Milena Ovseevich

“We’re waiting anxiously and trying to keep our spirits up while being patient,” Ovseevich said. “It’s been very hard, but every day that passes, it feels more clear. We feel even more passionate about rebuilding.”

Ovseevich had nothing but praise for the local community, which she described as “incredible. As tragic as this is, you can’t help but see the other side of it — how people are coming together and bringing ideas of how to rebuild,” she said.

With Hanukkah just around the corner, Ovseevich said she is grateful to be able to celebrate with family.

“Hanukkah is the holiday of light and fire, and I think that this year I’m really [feeling] the power of transformation that fire can bring. To know that we can gather together and celebrate the holiday this year, it means everything to us because a lot of people didn’t get that opportunity. When you go through something like this, you realize what’s important is your life, your loved ones, your family, your community and to be here for one another.”