The few people she comes across on her 14-mile mail route sometimes haven’t seen a familiar face — beyond their own family members — in days. Knowles’ presence represents life before the inferno, a glimmer of normality.
For her, that first week back on the route in mid-January was the hardest.
In nearby Chico, where Knowles has lived since the Camp fire destroyed her home in neighboring Magalia on Nov. 8, she could avoid seeing the wreckage and the loss. Now she has no choice but to be immersed in it as she drives through a post-apocalyptic landscape, surveying shadows of the past: the gym on Skyway where she’d work out after her shift, now all ash and crumbled concrete. The orchard where the owner loaded her up with apples and peaches whenever she delivered mail.
Knowles, 52, had taken these roads six days a week for five years. After the fire, she felt estranged from her surroundings. She would stop in front of certain properties and gape at the ruins, disoriented as she tried to figure out who had lived there.
Out of the 832 homes Knowles delivered to before the fire, 106 remain standing. She knows which customers have moved back and who checks their mailboxes regularly. Many of the brick mailboxes survived the fire even if the homes did not.