Evacuee recounts flight from Paradise

The News Review staff encountered a woman who had evacuated from Paradise, Calif. after the devastating Camp Fire broke out earlier this month. She came to Ridgecrest where she has friends and family – her home has since been destroyed by the fire. While she requested that she remain anonymous, she shared her story with us.

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By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

She hadn’t set her new battery-powered alarm clock yet, so it was a friend’s phone call that woke her up that Thursday morning, Nov. 8, at her home in Paradise, Calif.

“There’s a fire,” said her friend, adding that the fire was spotted in the small community of Pulga, Calif., about a 25 mile-drive from Paradise – but much closer as the crow travels, or in this case, as fire does.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the fire had begun at 6:33 that morning. By 11 a.m., it had spanned across roughly 1,000 acres.

“Pulga was a ways away, so I wasn’t really worried,” she said. “I had evacuated several times before. I really thought they would stop it before it got into town.”

She said the city had established evacuation zones after a fire in 2008, so she turned on the news to see if her zone had been called. It hadn’t been called yet, but she started packing bags just in case.

“I hadn’t been outside yet so it didn’t really register,” she said. “It was dark outside, almost black. I just went along packing, deciding what I should bring. I had a few things I was bringing [to Ridgecrest] for Thanksgiving anyway, so I packed those.”

She realized that she had to decide which vehicle to take – her new truck, her old truck or her little sedan. “As it turns out, you can only drive one car at a time,” she said. She settled on her Tacoma truck.

“My great niece from the Chico area called me and said, ‘They’re evacuating all of Paradise, you need to go.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going,’ but I wasn’t really concerned. It didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t be returning to my house.

“I told her I wanted to check on some neighbors before I left,, and that was when the power went out. It was pitch black.”

She said her garage door was stuck open and when she pulled the cord to drop the door, the cord broke.

“I had to get a flashlight so I could get the door shut by hand before I had to go,” she said. “I looked around the house one more time.”

Her laptop was one of the only things she brought with her. “It had everything on it I wanted to keep,” she said. But between shutting it and rushing out the door and her travels to Ridgecrest, the hard drive crashed and she lost access even to her digital belongings.

By 6 p.m., the fire had covered more than 50,000 acres and had burned through most of the town.

She stopped by her great niece’s house in Chico, which is when she began to understand the gravity of the disaster.

“I started watching the news and I’m watching people literally driving through fire,” she said. “They named a main road – one that was right off my street – that was fully consumed by the fire, and I realized,‘This doesn’t look good.’”

She left Chico to take her great niece and the niece’s boyfriend to stay with family in Fairfield – just southwest of Sacramento.

She said after “watching non-stop fire news” in Fairfield for a few days, she realized that she was one of the lucky ones.

“I didn’t have to drive through the flames or flee for my life or any of that,” she said. “I lost my home, but I still have resources and family. Some people lost everything. They didn’t have insurance, no clothing, no job, no income and no place to sleep. It’s them I really worry about.

“A friend of mine lost his business there. Not only has he lost his business, but all his employees lost their jobs. What do people like that do?”

She said her great niece had to help her cancel all of her utilities so she didn’t continue to receive bills.

“I needed her help with that. A lot of people may not even think to do that,” she said.

She headed east to Placerville where she had some business to attend to before making the final trip down Highway 395. She arrived in Ridgecrest on Saturday.

According to Cal Fire, as of Nov. 20 the fire had burned through more than 235 square miles and destroyed more than 16,000 structures with nearly 80 killed. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

“So all things considered, I’m in pretty good shape,” she said. “It’s the other people I worry about. They’ve lost all their possessions. There are people who really need help, and all I know to do is donate to charities that support those sort of things.”

See related story with more on the wildfire and how locals are helping.

“Most of the houses on my street are gone,” she said. “You wonder if the town will ever come back completely. It’ll rain. Next spring things will green up and the town won’t look quite so devastated. But in this instance, I just don’t know what will happen to the town.”

She knows people who have said they aren’t going to try to rebuild and plan on moving on from Paradise. She and her late husband built a home there in 1985, where she’s lived since. But she said she wasn’t ready to make the decision on whether or not to return.

“I’ll worry about what I’m going to do tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Story First Published: 2018-11-21