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Photo courtesy of Donna Byrnes
Photo courtesy of Donna Byrnes
St. Anselm alum Rita Walsh Nickoff and family's house burned down following California wildfires.

Bay Ridge has stepped up to help a former Bay Ridgeite and St. Anselm alum whose home in Ventura, California was destroyed by wildfires this past December.

Rita Walsh Nickoff and her husband Loren witnessed the catastrophe firsthand on Monday, December 4. Although they managed to escape the fire, their home — and everything inside — was destroyed, leading longtime friend Donna Byrnes, who graduated with Nickoff from St. Anselm in 1975, to lend a helping hand.

“The pictures of the burning houses were awful,” said Byrnes. “I was talking with friends and I thought maybe I could do a GoFundMe page.”

After receiving Nickoff’s blessing, Byrnes set it up and raised $20,000.

Following the success, Byrnes and friends threw a benefit at the Leif Bar, 6725 Fifth Avenue, on Saturday, January 27 and raised around $6,000.

“It was $20 per person and I had gift certificates from all the restaurants in the neighborhood,” Byrnes said. “I had gifts that friends donated, I donated, and my husband donated a few items.”

Nickoff attended the event and was overwhelmed by the generosity and love from her old friends.

“It was overwhelming because when you have been gone from somewhere for 25 years, you don’t realize how many friends you had,” she said. “When I got there I couldn’t believe it. There were more than 100 people there. It was packed and I was overwhelmed. All I can say is that I’m extremely grateful and thankful. There is no way to express my gratitude to everyone that showed up to show me this love and support.”

Nickoff’s story is a frightening one. The day of the fire, “It was cold for California standards, like 45 degrees and the winds were about 60 miles an hour and I got an alert on the phone about a fire on Wheeler Canyon,” she recalled. “I went to wash the dishes and I saw the fire from the window and I told my husband, ‘We have to get out of here.’”

The lights went out throughout the whole neighborhood, Nickoff continued. The couple grabbed their dogs, photos of their children, and two boxes of pictures and drove away. At that point, the cops ordered a mandatory evacuation.

“I jumped in my car, we left one behind and he grabbed our RV,” she said. “We drove down the street and everyone was evacuating.  The whole hill in Ventura was on fire. It was surreal. We got down to the grocery store and there were hundreds of people in there with their cars and dogs and we could see the fire above us.”

Once the lights went back on and the fire appeared to be moving west of their place, the two decided to head back home.

“At around 3:30 a.m. as I was laying down, I smelled smoke and I put the covers over my face,” she said. “I looked out the window and I saw an ember land on my shed and saw the flames coming off the hillside. It was horrific.”

Once again, they left the home, which was eventually destroyed.

“It was just tragic,” she recalled. “It was a three bedroom house, all in ashes. There was nothing left.”

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Byrnes, who reconnected with Nickoff during a 50th birthday reunion trip to Atlantic City, was happy to have made a difference. “With every second that I put into this, I felt like my heart grew and grew. It was a wonderful feeling to know that we could help rebuild their life. It was really something.”

The rebuild could take up to two years and the sadness remains for Nickoff.

“There’s nothing left. When you have a flood or earthquake you find some of your stuff,” she said. “When there’s a fire, you find nothing.”

But, the donations and love shared at the benefit provided a silver lining. “I do a lot of fundraising for church and other organizations but it’s very hard to accept it,” Nickoff said. “It was the greatest thing [Donna] did. I could never pay her back. She knows I’m grateful.”

To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/4ts3u14.

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