California Forum

My mother survived PG&E’s Camp Fire, but the trauma and pain of loss lingers on

When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California

The Camp Fire tore through Paradise, California, becoming the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Sacramento Bee staff recount covering the impact of the deadly wildfire.
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The Camp Fire tore through Paradise, California, becoming the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Sacramento Bee staff recount covering the impact of the deadly wildfire.

I remember the forcefulness of the wind in those first few daylight hours of Nov. 8. Even in Sacramento, it whipped across my face with a uncommon and chaotic energy. In less than an hour, we would learn of the the unthinkable, that an even more powerful wind was fueling what would be known as the deadly Camp Fire. A fire which would rage out of control and tragically devour everything in its furious path. The city of Paradise and surrounding towns would soon be decimated. The loss of life and property would be incomprehensible.

Paradise was a nature-rich city and had many historical buildings and prominent landmarks. A strong sense of community united the residents, and they all seemed to value their tree-draped canopies and vast canyon views.

It was working-class and a humble place to live and raise children. It had churches, thrifty antique shops, clean schools and accessible medical facilities. In fact, Paradise was a paradise for many generations of families, especially those is search of affordable, natural beauty and an escape from urban city life and noise.

I received a call from my mom, who lived in Paradise, a couple of nights before the Camp Fire raged. She would be driving down to Sacramento earlier than expected and planned to stay with us through the weekend. She said the winds were predicted to be high and had just received an alert notification from PG&E letting her know the power may be turned off.

Hindsight is always much clearer. But I can’t help to think: What if they had turned the power off? What if a fleet of professionals from PG&E had been dispatched to the Camp Creek Road area as a precaution? Had gotten to the faulty equipment sooner? What if that alert hadn’t been just an email or text that could be simply swiped away or overlooked?

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We will never fully know or understand the exact cause or intervention that guided my mom to our house that day. She was protected from the horrors of evacuating, but not from the emotional toll or guilt that comes from losing all of your personal belongings and your home – surviving while so many perished. Survivors guilt for those who have experienced such catastrophes is a weight or anchor unconsciously dragged with them everyday, possibly the rest of their lives.

A feeling of utter helplessness and devastation engulfed us that morning as we watched and listened to the news reports. Many frantic calls to loved ones were made and not answered. Those who did answered in agonizing distress. We kept a watchful eye on the growing missing persons list.

We knew, as all those who knew Paradise – especially the first responders and dispatchers – that there were many elderly residents in the area with special needs and physical disabilities who would not be able to manage an evacuation without assistance. We knew the children, those innocent lives, would be shattered forever from the inescapable fear of being trapped in vehicles surrounded by flames.

It’s too painful to even consider what could be the lasting affects of such trauma.

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As the videos started to appear, the entire world watched this apocalyptic inferno engulf everything in its path. We now know this inferno was caused by PG&E.

So here is my response to the news articles and all other statements provided by PG&E: Nothing can be done to save the lives that have been lost or the trauma that exists within all of the survivors. Many, like my mom, are still financially burdened with mortgages for homes that are now piles of toxic ash and medical bills for social services that they so desperately need.

Now is the time to stop apologizing and act. Show us all that you care more about doing the right thing and have evolved from your past mistakes and negligence. Show us that you are a company with an ethical commitment to life and growth. You have made significant steps by agreeing to pay settlements to the town of Paradise and Butte County. But what are you going to do to help the affected individuals recover?

Demonstrate through bold and swift action that the victim’s of the Camp Fire didn’t deserve to have their lives destroyed. Future hardships will also undoubtedly arise, such as cancers and other toxic-related injuries and deaths. There will be increased need for mental illness related treatment and suicide prevention.

From this day forward, focus your efforts on presuming that your equipment may fail. Move that equipment to safer areas. Know that strong winds and dry conditions are a part of our climate now, and plan accordingly. Our family, and so many others, are counting on you.

You must be accountable to the public for which you serve. The public should not have to assume additional costs or raised rates for fires that have been determined to be caused by you.

You have an opportunity to become a guiding light and moral compass. Remember the victims in both your heart and mind when you make your critical next steps. The nation is watching which way your ethical wind will blow.

Ruth Pagano is a resident of West Sacramento. Her mom lived in Paradise.

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