California Forum

‘That fearsome day’: I escaped the Camp Fire. One year later, the recovery isn’t over

On Nov. 8, a year ago, I was awakened by a call from my wife, Karen, telling me about smoke billowing up into the clear morning skies from a neighboring ridge. Enough smoke to be worrisome on a new day when winds were changing directions erratically.

Karen had gone off to an early morning exercise class with our neighbor, Sue, but they’d decided to forego the session because of the smoke.

When my wife called that morning, I first assumed she was overreacting. That opposing ridge is some distance away. Surely the firefighters who had put out so many previous blazes would have this one under control long before it got anywhere near our home in Magalia, just east of Paradise.

Nonetheless, I got the cat carriers down from a high shelf in the garage. Should we be told to evacuate, our four cats would be an obvious priority. Everything I looked at seemed to call for a decision. What should I try to take, and what was too large or bothersome? Even if we were forced to leave, we’d likely be allowed back in a day or two.

Information was hard to come by. Then the phone began to ring and rumors began to spread. I gathered three of our cats and got them in their carriers. The fourth one, always more skittish, saw me coming, heard me coaxing and ran away. I remember the last glimpse of her vividly. She always comes to mind in any inventory of losses.

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By the end of that day, nearly a hundred of our fellow ridge residents would be dead. Almost everything familiar to the rest of us would be gone. Almost everyone would spend that fearsome day fleeing the fire in slow motion, caught in traffic that inched along one of the few evacuation routes.

We pulled out of our driveway around 10 a.m. only to find the Skyway through Paradise was no longer open to traffic. We were turned back in the direction from whence we’d come, across the community reservoir. Usually, it was a two-minute drive to the first stoplight. On that chaotic morning, it took nearly an hour.

Ahead of us was about 36 miles of a winding mountain road through thickly forested terrain. We had no idea whether the fire might overtake us or jump ahead of us.

There was little choice but to join the traffic jam, and so we did, beginning a six-hour crawl toward safety in a long caravan of cars creeping toward Highway 32.

Until a few years earlier, the road hadn’t been paved. Had it not been for efforts by Karen and other people – mostly women – on the Paradise ridge, that paving might never have been done. Had it not happened, the death toll from the fire would have been incalculably higher.

By the time we reached Butte Meadows, it was growing dark. There were hundreds of people who had stopped there with their horse trailers, waiting to see when they’d be allowed to return to their homes. Many of them were, by that time, already gone.

It was full dark by the time we made it to Highway 32, which parallels the Paradise ridge. There, for the first time, we could see the extent of the blaze, red against the darkness, stretching for miles as we drove toward Chico.

It took several more hours to get to our daughter’s house in Sacramento. It took two more days to find out that our house had been taken by the fire. It took until now to begin to feel settled again, newly ensconced in a house with our name on the mortgage.

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Jaime O’Neill

We were among the fortunate ones. The year that has passed since the fire has been a true nightmare for thousands of people. Many renters were uninsured. Others had their lives upended in dramatic ways. Many who fled have spent the last year shuttling from place to place in search of something stable or more permanent.

Nearly all of us had to start over from scratch. Our clothes were gone, along with everything else from beds to medications. When we arrived in Sacramento, we found that the smoke from our house had followed us here. For a few days last November, California’s capital city had the worst air quality on the planet. People were seen everywhere wearing masks against that very dirty smoke.

Since then, tons of hazardous waste has been scraped off the thousands of lots where homes and businesses once stood. The trucks still come down off that ridge daily, loaded with what were once living rooms and lawns.

An errant fear occurred to me a few days ago.

“Oh my God,” I thought, “I’ve got to call mom and let her know we’re safe.”

My mother died 10 years ago. Still, I had to process the thought. Most fire victims I’ve spoken to have told similar tales of lasting disorientation.

It’s impossible for many of us survivors not to think about Puerto Rico, the Bahamas or other weather-related calamities around the world. There, people like us are dealing with their own brushes with death, with the loss of their roofs, their neighbors and so much that was familiar.

How nice it would be if we could think this tragedy was an anomaly. Lingering in its wake, however, is the uneasy knowledge that “natural” disasters – floods, hurricanes and fires – are going to be more common and more severe from here on out.

More people are having, or will have, days like the one we had a year ago today. Or perhaps far worse.

Jaime O’Neill is a retired community college teacher and freelance writer.
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