Fresno family thankful to be alive after fire
Patricia Gaffney-Ament’s family is grateful to have a Christmas tree and presents.
They also are thankful to be alive.
A fast-moving fire last month destroyed their mobile home southwest of Fresno and could have killed Gaffney-Ament and her three children, firefighters said.
But Gaffney-Ament, 36, kept her wits, and her perspective: “The important thing is that we are alive and we have each other. What more could you ask for?”
Her family’s loss, though, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Members of the Chi Sigma Iota Honor Society at Fresno State, where she is studying for a master’s degree in counseling and marriage and family therapy, have collected household donations and held a bake sale for her.
Fresno State’s Department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation set up an account for her at a local bank.
“She is a special student,” said professor Albert Valencia, the department’s chair. “She showed courage in the face of danger.”
While picking through the mangled, burned wreckage last week, Gaffney-Ament downplayed her actions. “I just did what I had to do,” she said.
But Valencia said Gaffney-Ament has special qualities. “Without question, the power of love transformed a pensive graduate student quietly reviewing her tasks into a fast-acting, life-saving mother,” Valencia said.
Gaffney-Ament, who is studying to be a high school counselor or therapist, said “she isn’t a typical Valley girl.”
She grew up in the countryside outside of Fresno, where her parents run an organic farming business. After graduating from Fresno High School in 1995, she worked as a waitress and in a clothing store while attending Fresno City College and Reedley College.
In 2000, she enrolled in San Diego State and studied psychology. That summer she backpacked in Europe for three months and met hundreds of people, including a man in a hostel in Belgium.
She later caught up to him in Mexico and married him in 2002.
Gaffney-Ament, who is fluent in Spanish, said she and her husband lived in Mexico for two years before they decided to live in Fresno and raise a family.
Initially, she wanted to be a homemaker. But when the husband began drinking excessively and wouldn’t work, she said, she enrolled at Fresno State and earned a bachelor’s degree in child development in 2008.
A year later, she divorced him.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I have no complaints,” said Gaffney-Ament, who remarried in 2010.
Even the fire that left her family with nothing hasn’t dampened her spirits.
On the morning of Nov. 16, her husband, Adam Ament, left for work. She was studying just after 6 a.m. when her oldest son, Tyler, 8, woke up.
Then she heard a beeping sound. “At first, I thought it was the dryer,” she said.
She quickly realized she wasn’t drying clothes. The sound was the smoke alarm. She dashed down the hallway and saw smoke and flames coming from the bedrooms of the double-wide mobile home. She told Tyler to go outside. She then grabbed her two sleeping kids — Jake, 7, and Madison, 5 — and took them out.
“It could have turned horribly wrong, very quickly,” Fresno County Fire Capt. Ryan Michaels said.
Gaffney-Ament went back into the burning home and rescued four dogs and four cats. She also grabbed her purse, laptop and cell phone and called 911. She tried to return to the burning home to get her school work and other things, but it was too late, she said.
Torched power lines that had fallen on a chain-link fence prevented firefighters from putting out the 6:10 a.m. blaze, Michaels said. By the time Pacific Gas & Electric Co. workers arrived to de-energize the fence, the home was destroyed, he said.
Gaffney-Ament said she got scared and nearly cried when the power lines fell near a propane tank. “My kids were shaking and crying, so I knew I had to stop.”
A heating lamp on an adjoining chicken coop caused the fire, the captain said. Gaffney-Ament said she bought the lamp a few days before.
She said firefighters sifted through the rubble and found some of her homework — a log of nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer work at a locked psychiatric clinic and a drug rehabilitation center for women.
Firefighters also found pets that died in the fire — a cat named Ninja, a rooster and three hens. Gaffney-Ament was thankful because she could give them a proper burial. “They were family to us.”
She lost baby photos and family pictures, but was able to recover birth certificates and passports, she said.
Gaffney-Ament said she has received an outpouring of support, including from the Red Cross, parents and staff at Century Elementary School in Clovis, where her children go to school, Clovis Unified’s school nurses, and from colleagues at the Fresno Family Counseling Center.
Until she can get a new home, she and her family will live with her parents, Greg and Judy Gaffney.
“We are fortunate because it could have been worse,” she said. “I always try to find happiness wherever I’m at, and I know we couldn’t make it this far without the support of my family and friends and the community.”
How to help
Send donations to the Educational Employees Credit Union, Ament fund, account No. 11843552, and IRS tax identification No. #30-0756927.
By Pablo Lopez