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Paradise lost: A woman struggles to reclaim her life after the Camp fire

Dippi taught her to push harder, to fight through.

When JayaMae Gregory was down, she loved to head out on Dippi, over the trails outside Paradise, where she had moved to start a new life. JayaMae trained Dippi to be an endurance horse. The plan was for JayaMae’s teenage son Jakob to compete with Dippi in 100-mile races.

Dippi was a grey mare, half Arab, a horse with the countenance of a freight train. Huge strides on the trail. Dippi’s given name was DC Reindeer Dippin, shortened to Dippi because it fit her personality. The DC stood for “dream catcher” and Reindeer Dippin is a famous bull.

Dippi would let strangers rub her ears. The kids dressed her up for Halloween. JayaMae wrote that Dippi didn’t understand why she couldn’t just jump in your lap for a snuggle.



On a recent Friday, JayaMae, 36, and mother of three, talked about Dippi and the impact that horse had on her family. The conversation shifted to fear, devastation and, ultimately, hope.

She was staying in Southern California with her father because there is nothing left in Paradise.

The Camp fire, which began Nov. 8 and became the deadliest fire in California history, took nearly everything from JayaMae Gregory.


Finding her right role

Her name, as a child, wasn’t JayaMae.

She was Isha Ahluwalia, and she was going to be a star. She was a child actor and model, signing with the Beverly Hecht Agency. She had roles in theater productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

Her big break was supposed to have been a guest spot on the television series “NYPD Blue.” But the night before she was scheduled to appear, her part was given to another actor.

“It was a brutal business,” she said.

Her dreams of stardom ended quickly, she said. In high school, she met a photographer who told her she was beautiful and offered to take some shots for her portfolio. The man gave her alcohol and took naked pictures of her. (Eventually, she gave a statement to police, but she dropped out of the case when the thought of testifying became too painful.)

The incident sent her on a downward spiral. She moved out of her parents’ home and partied her way around the world. There was a trip to Europe. There was a time where she lived in Chicago.

“I was running away,” she said.

There were drugs and sex and an unplanned pregnancy. Her son Jakob was born when she was 20.

Then suddenly, the responsibility of being a mother summoned something inside her.

“He saved my life,” she said.

At 20, she moved back to Orange County and found herself working in a Robbins Brothers engagement ring store.

Her manager at the store was a guy named Gary Gregory. He was 15 years older, divorced with a couple of kids.

But he listened to her. By 22, she was dating Gary.

“He let me be who I want to be,” she said. “He doesn’t try to change me.”

One day, Gary was watching football on television when Isha told him she needed to talk at halftime. That’s when she told him she was pregnant. The couple who met in an engagement ring store didn’t have a romantic engagement.

“I don’t want to do this again without a husband,” she remembers saying.

They were married Oct. 15, 2004 at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. Their son, Declan, was born in 2005.

It was during the process of looking at names in baby books that Isha noticed the name Jaya. It meant victorious. In 2008, she added her grandmother’s middle name and officially changed her name to JayaMae.

She wanted to leave Isha behind.

In her mid-20s, she completely remade her life.

She found Paradise.

‘Dream come true’

JayaMae wanted to be a nurse, so she applied at several universities. The first to accept her was Chico State.

Paradise is just a few miles away. It’s a little town that had a population of a little more than 26,000 as of the 2010 census. There was a Gold Nugget Museum in town, and a few scenes from “Gone with the Wind” were filmed there.

“Paradise was everything the name implies,” Gary said. “It was somewhere you could relax, somewhere you could be centered.”

JayaMae and Gary eventually bought a 2,200-square foot home with a view of the canyon on 4.2 acres. They had a guest house and a barn. JayaMae eventually graduated from Chico with a nursing degree and got a job in the maternity ward at Feather River Hospital.

She had another baby, Asher, a little boy who made her proud because it was a planned event. She had the baby at home.

Everything was going great.

For JayaMae, the most important change in her life was the horses.

She eventually owned six of them, and three others lived on the property. She started her own business, called “Lightfoot Horse Farm,” in which she taught horsemanship to 40 students.

“It was my dream come true,” JayaMae said.

“She was making a huge impact in the community,” Gary said.

DC Reindeer Dippin was a gift from her friend Dianna Chapek. The grey mare seemed to be able to run forever. Chapek let JayaMae borrow Dippi. It was Jakob who sealed the deal when he told Chapek he loved Dippi.

“I knew I was never getting her back,” Chapek said. “How do you take a horse away from a kid?”

“Jakob fell in love with Dippi,” JayaMae said.

Dippi’s first test was the 20 Mule Team challenge. The rookie horse finished 100 miles on the trails of Ridgecrest.

Then, Jakob rode Dippi in the prestigious Tevis Cup, another 100-mile endurance challenge. Dippi was pulled from the event (they regularly check the health of the horses on the course) because of dehydration.

“She needed more training and conditioning,” JayaMae said.

On Nov. 3, 2018, Dippi participated in a charity event, a 10-mile ride to raise money for a medical clinic in Nigeria.

There is no way JayaMae could have imagined that ride would be Dippi’s last.

Kindness of strangers

On Nov. 8, JayaMae was asleep after a long night at the hospital. Jakob was driving himself to school when he saw the fire. He turned around and raced home.

“Mom,” Jakob said, “we have to evacuate the horses.”

JayaMae opened the curtains.

“I saw this huge plume of smoke reaching for the sky,” she said. “The whole canyon was on fire.”

She called a friend, who agreed to bring a horse trailer. There were seven horses on the property.

JayaMae and Jakob quickly loaded five horses. Gary put Asher in the car.

“We could hear the fire,” she said. “Every time a tree fell, it sounded like thunder.”

Dippi and Zaza were the last two out of the barn. But she was sure they would be fine because another trailer was on the way.

JayaMae remembers the horror when Gary said, “I don’t think that other trailer is going to make it.”

“I can’t leave the horses,” she said.

“We have a baby in the car,” Gary said. “We have to go.”

She wrote her phone number on the rump of each horse. She left the gates unlatched. She put out a bail of hay and 110 gallons of water.

And the Gregory family drove away.

They had to split up the family, staying in guest rooms of friends and strangers.

JayaMae said she learned a lesson about kindness when an 80-plus year-old woman she didn’t know offered her and Asher a bed.

“I saw humanity at its finest,” said JayaMae, who has been keeping track on Facebook of everything people have given her family. “This has made me feel like everything is going to be OK.”

Her home, however, was not OK. The only thing left standing was the chimney. She lost her wedding video, and all the love letters Gary had written to her. She lost her modeling portfolio from another lifetime.

“I did not cry,” JayaMae said. “We knew there would be devastation.”

Her job? That was gone, too. The Feather River Hospital burned down.

And then there was Dippi.

Painful decision

JayaMae heard there had been a rescue. Two horses had been saved from her property by the North Valley Animal Rescue Group.

The Gregorys raced to the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Zaza and Dippi were alive.

Zaza had recovered completely.

But Dippi …

“She had a look in her eye,” JayaMae said, “like she was in pain.”

Dippi had broken the “coffin bone” inside her hoof. She had laminitis, which is inflammation, also inside her hoof.

Dippi couldn’t stand.

They tried for a month to let her heal. But Dippi was in pain.

The Gregorys decided to put her down. JayaMae called Chapek to tell her the bad news.

“She did the right thing,” Chapek said. “After I hung up the phone, I cried.”

The Gregorys gathered around Dippi in a padded pen.

Jakob had his arms around her neck.

JayaMae leaned in.

“I told her I was sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t get her out of the fire. It felt like it was my fault.”

Dippi died on Jan. 15.

“It was like losing part of our family,” Gary said. “That horse was Jaya’s heart.”

Time to roam

One of the acts of kindness … a stranger, who wished to remain anonymous, gave the Gregorys a recreational vehicle free of charge.

And that gave JayaMae and Gary an idea.

This summer, they’re going to drive away.

They don’t know where. But they’re going. East. There will be a stop in Tennessee to see members of Gary’s family. But the rest is going to happen as it happens.


“We’re going to have this epic trip,” JayaMae said.

If JayaMae Gregory learned anything from her horse, it was to push harder, to fight through.

Source: Orange County Register

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