Camp Fire survivor builds a new life after harrowing escape from Paradise

Edna Eisle’s positive attitude has helped her recover from the Camp Fire and the death of her husband in 2018.
Edna Eisle’s positive attitude has helped her recover from the Camp Fire and the death of her husband in 2018.

Edna Eisele is 86 years of energy and enthusiasm. Her positive attitude and love of life bubble over in her first hello and friendly smile. These attributes would help her survive the deadly Camp Fire and begin a new chapter.

When Eisele’s husband, Don, retired as a fire marshal in Burbank, the couple moved to Davis and purchased two Pioneer Chicken franchises. After eight years of 17-hour days running the restaurants, they sold them and moved to Paradise.

It was 1992. They lived in a forested area with eight trees surrounding their home. Over the years there were fires. They were evacuated three times before the Camp Fire of 2018 but always allowed to return to their home as the town remained untouched. With his fire background, Don thought the three exits from Paradise would suffice for any emergency evacuations.

The couple enjoyed the beauty and nature of the area and their friendly neighbors. In February of 2018, Don died after a six-month battle with cancer. He wanted Edna to remodel the house and she threw herself into new flooring, bath fixtures and painting after he died. By Nov. 8, 2018, the house looked just the way she hoped it would.

Heavy pounding on the door

That morning the Camp Fire broke out. Edna received two early calls from unsolicited salesmen. She decided not to answer the next five calls. She missed the fire evacuation call and frantic calls from Morgan Taylor, her granddaughter in Oregon, and Lori Zoghbi, her daughter in Davis.

At 8:45 am, she heard a heavy pounding on her front door. “You’ve got to get out right now,” someone shouted. “Fire is coming!”

Edna and her daughter Lynne Keerans, who was living with her at the time, scrambled to get out of the house. Edna grabbed her purse, phone, one shirt and a pair of slacks that were on top of the Goodwill bag she’d recently filled. Lynne did the same. Neither worried about taking more since they were sure that they could return by nightfall, as had been the case in previous evacuations.

Though it was only 9:15 a.m., the sky was black as night and the air had a horrible odor. The wind was roaring at 75 miles per hour. Branches flew about. Lynne turned to Edna, “Mom, I’ll drive, you pray.”

Blackie was the neighborhood stray, a feral cat who’d been fed by neighbors for the past five years. Prior to that day, Edna had been taking him into her house hoping to keep him indoors for the winter. As Edna and Lynne rushed to their car, they spotted Blackie running past the house in a panic. Though Edna wanted to catch him, he had disappeared. In the days to come, Edna would add his fate to her many worries.

As Edna and Lynne backed out of their driveway, they encountered a traffic jam. There were cars going the wrong direction and other cars that had been abandoned and were now blocking the exit.

A winding escape route

On Skyway, a four-lane highway to Chico, panicked drivers and parked cars prevented some fire trucks from getting into the area.

The women passed their favorite restaurant; it was burning down. Then the flames shot across the highway just a block ahead of their vehicle.

The women made the decision to exit Skyway. They took Neal Road, a bumpy windy road that goes to Highway 99. Many vehicles followed them.

Unfortunately, Neal has a number of residences and the occupants were flooding out to the street in their bid to escape.

“Movement was slow and flames as high as this building (El Dorado Estates, which is a three-story structure) sprang up in our wake. We wondered if we’d get out,” Edna said.

By 5 p.m., 90 percent of Paradise, including Edna’s home, was gone. Edna and Lynne got the last vacant room in a Corning motel. They were surrounded by other Paradise evacuees.

The women would spend six nights at the motel. It was soon apparent that more necessities were left behind. Edna’s medications, partial dentures and glasses were in the ashes.

A Chico doctor refilled Edna’s prescription and she was able to pick them up at a Walgreens 15 miles from Corning. Costco remade her glasses in two days. Her partial took longer as her dentist lost everything in the fire as well. Her dentist had a friend (from Paradise) who was practicing in El Dorado Hills. The new dentist got Edna in right away. Since her other teeth had already begun to shift, a different partial needed to be created.

The six nights near Paradise allowed Edna to get 24/7 news of the fire. She wanted to know what happened to her friends and all the structures. There were a few miracles: a row of four houses across the creek from Edna’s home and the church Edna attended, Christian Missionary Alliance, were unharmed. The church, a huge structure surrounded by a large parking lot and few trees provided sanctuary to many who could not escape on the roadways.

Surveying the damage

A week after the fire began, Edna’s other daughter, Lori, drove up to bring Edna back to her Davis home.

It was more than two weeks before Edna could return to Paradise and survey the damage to her home. There was nothing left. Her jewelry box and its contents were melded together, the safe she thought was fireproof had burned to the size of a fist and all the documents it once held were destroyed. The corner that displayed her husband’s lifetime of firefighting achievement awards and Edna’s extensive teapot collection were no more. Her upright Yamaha piano became but dust among the rubble.

After a six week stay in Davis, Edna moved to El Dorado Estates, a luxurious senior living community. Her granddaughter, Kaley Wissman, lives in El Dorado Hills. She saw it being built and, before Don passed away, thought both her grandparents might like to move there.

Edna says, “I love Paradise and know it will rebuild but not in my lifetime, so I won’t return. I was forced to consider other options.”

“When I saw El Dorado Estates, I thought I was on a cruise ship,” she said. “I wanted to buy a condo, but it’s so lovely here and everyone is so friendly.”

After moving in on December 29, 2018, Edna did what few residents do: she bought new furniture. Most people leave a houseful of furniture that won’t fit into their new apartment behind. Having just the clothes on her back and their newer counterparts, Edna was able to start fresh, picking furnishings most suited to her new dwelling.

She can now attend chapel, go to a movie, enjoy the library, or order a three-course meal under the high-ceiling roof of her surroundings. She made a number of new friends and plays bean bag baseball, Bunco and dominos. She loves the outings to wineries, casinos, and plays. She looks forward to a five-day cruise.

In August, Edna adopted a Camp Fire cat named Nugget. His owners were able to get him out of the fire safely only to discover that they couldn’t keep a pet in their new residence. Gray striped Nugget is an oversized lap cat that Edna fell in love with the moment she saw him.

She continued to worry about Blackie until she heard that he has returned to her old neighborhood where only four houses now stand. He’s well taken care of and Edna is relieved to know that he survived.

Edna’s spin on the series of unfortunate events she’s endured is a humble affirmation of her life.

“I was raised to get through things,” she said.