Top: Greg’s short video of our experiences.
Above: Photo from Day 4 as refugees from the Camp Fire . We are so hardwired to early walks that we have been simply strapping on our regulation masks that help protect from all the ash in the air and go out walking for an hour or two in beautiful Bidwell Park in Chico. Our car and clothes are dusted with ash, even though you can’t see it in the photo.
It looks like even if the fires and roads clear up, our home, if still standing, the water and power and all infrastructure that are either non functioning or contaminated from ash mean it may be two to three months before livable. And even then, the town is, well, gone. It may rev up relocation quest.
The Camp Fire
What they say about not ever knowing what the next day – or moment – may bring is absolutely true.
Just about one week ago, on Thursday November 8, my husband Greg and I stepped out on our usual morning walk to Paradise Lake, about a fifteen minute stroll behind our property. It was about 6:30 a.m. We could see a huge billow of black clouds several miles to the east, with the sun peeking out from its edges. I gasped, knowing from previous experience that this is what wildfire clouds can look like. Yet the rest of the sky was an immaculate blue and there wasn’t a whiff of smoke in the air.
As we made our way through the California Conservation Corps Fire Center near the lake, we asked about it and were told yes, it was a fire started in Pulga to the east by power lines. The wind was kicking up, and we went home to stay on alert.
A couple of hours later, the power went out. The electric company had notified us previously that in fire danger conditions, they may well preemptively stop power for community safety. Still, clear blue skies prevailed, so we went about our day. With no access to internet or TV, were moved through the day oblivious to the conflagration that was taking place in the town of Paradise several miles to our south. Cell service stopped, so no access to details that way, either.
Late afternoon, we decided to take a reconnaissance drive south. It was four miles down the road that we encountered the fire having burned southwest. Still no smell of smoke. And skies in Magalia clear. The car radio was on, but there was no word of evacuations, just talks of warnings to be ready in the event the fire traveled north.
We turned back to home, and fired up our car engine with plugin adapter so that we could catch news on TV. With evacuations to the south, and the warning to ‘be ready’, we packed two cars with clothing, some valuables and important papers, ready to go should hard news hit.
We never did get the ‘mandatory evacuation’ for our zone, and with no smoke in the air, we turned in late to get some rest. I couldn’t sleep though, and finally about 3:00 in the morning when we could hear propane tanks exploding in the distance, we stepped outside to a sheet of falling ash and decided, now’s the time. We could get no information on the radio about which direction to head. The primary road out is south through Paradise, and earlier we had heard to be prepared to travel north towards the mountains in a long evacuation route. Not knowing the current status, we headed south through the dark, and about 3 miles down the road encountered burning buildings and flames blowing across the road. We searched for fire staff, or sheriff, for direction. But there was no one there. Which told us that resources were being spread so thin that we needed to make a decision for ourselves.
We did an about face and headed north, through long winding roads until encountering the sheriff forces who told us to continue, turn left at the stop sign at Butte Meadows, and just keep going until we hit Chico. Luckily one of our cars was filled with gas – but all the gas stations in the area had stopped pumping with the power outtage earlier that day. We thought we were going to have to leave one of our cars abandoned by the road, out of gas – like dozens of other vehicles we saw along the way through the eerie morning darkness. But to our good fortune, there was one person with a gas tank pumping gas in Butte Meadows for people like us who needed a little fuel.
We fueled up and arrived in Chico at about 6:00 on Friday morning. The town was enveloped in smoke. Emergency vehicles were gathering and being dispatched. Coffee shops were closed. We started texting cousins who knew other cousins in the area where we might at least find some respite from the morning’s turn of events.
Family to the Rescue
Even though we had not seen many of our Chico cousins in many moons, they scrambled to give us shelter and safety. The comfort and kindness they have been giving to us ever since – now so many days later – is astonishingly wonderful.
We haven’t any idea of how long this saga will continue. At this point it appears our home has escaped the flames of destruction – though smoke damage yet to be assessed. And the entire community is devoid of services. Power, water, communications, markets. As my friend Miyoko was observing during our phone conversation earlier today, the fallout from this fire is not unlike Pompeii. From vibrant nature to ash.
Thousands of fire fighters, rescue personnel, and law enforcement have been multiplying on the scene. As of this writing, the first still rages, though containment grows. We watch for word while trying to manage our affairs without knowing much about outcomes. We contacted our insurance agency and they are assisting with the costs of displacement. We walk with our masks on and the rest of the day spend as little time dashing between shelters to escape the toxicity of the air – which, as a nurse friend pointed out, is heavy with not only ash and wood smoke but chemicals and burning tires and gas fumes and everything else that combusts in these conflagrations.
We continue to be grateful to our dear cousins. I have been pitching in with making salads and stir fries for dinner, serving some treats from Miyoko’s Kitchen (omnivores universally love this stuff!) and vegan ice cream. We are so much more fortunate than others. For example, yesterday we were in line at the bank to make a transaction, along with several other people in N95 masks (named thus because they filter out 95% of the toxic particulate in the air), and asked the woman in front of me how she was doing. She told us that she had lost her home, her two dogs, her car, that her husband had lost his job because his place of work had burned down, and that he had suffered a heart attack during the evacuation. Heavens. The human suffering is unimaginable.
Thank you also, those who have written, called, posted messages to me, or reached out in a gazillion other ways to show your love and support. We have had people we have never met invite us to take refuge in their homes from more than a dozen states across the country. I have received messages from people asking if they could have our address so they could send us gifts, care packages, kitchen appliances – anything that make our journey through this easier. So we have got it good – safety, shelter, and many kind hearts to buoy our spirits as we navigate these uncertain times.
May you be safe and protected.