Remembering the CAMP FIRE wildfire disaster in PARADISE California

Remembering the CAMP FIRE wildfire disaster in PARADISE California


As soon as I got the evacuation – read the
notice that our neighborhood was under an evacuation order, all I could think
about was coming back for the pets. We had chickens and ducks and a dog. And I
think about it every day. The chicken coop was the only thing in
the neighborhood that survived so they were okay. But we couldn’t find the dog afterwards and we looked in all the shelters but we couldn’t come back to
the house at that point to know if he was here or not. All the stories you hear
it’s hard for them not to break your heart because you know that they’re real
people that lost so much and you can feel for them. November 8th was a pretty normal morning
for us. Chris had a flight to Atlanta so I got up with him at 4:00 and saw him
out the door, went back to bed for an hour or so and then got up and ran
through the normal routine of a school day with the kids. Danny mentioned that
he thought it was going to rain. We hadn’t had rain for months. I was like
what do you mean rain? He said there’s a cloud outside and I looked out the back
door and you could see smoke starting to come up from across the canyon. So I
looked up the fire and it was at ten acres at that point. I’d been
planning on working in Chico that day, I decided I’ll come home and keep an
eye on the fire. We’ve been through this routine before of having fires in
the area. Got in the car started driving the kids to school in Chico. Chris
texted me from the plane and said this fires growing quickly like I think maybe
you should go home and like keep an eye on things. And I said I’ll drop off the
kids and like go home and make sure we’re ready if we need to be ready. I wish I could go back in time to that
moment and I wish I’d turned around then. I kept going and I dropped off the kids
in Chico at school. They didn’t see anything that day and for that I’m
grateful but I never made it home. After I dropped off the kids I checked on the
status of fire again and they had issued an evacuation for our neighborhood which
we’ve never had before. We’d always been ready for those scenarios but so I
immediately headed for home. A good friend called me on the way and said are
you evacuating and I said I’m on my way back right now. She called me about 15
minutes later and said Kelsey it’s it’s so bad I don’t think you should go. She
said we’re evacuating too. And I was just coming into Paradise and I said
I have to go back I have to get our dog. I got a couple miles from the house and
the main thoroughfare to our house had already completely devolved. It went from
clear traffic to both lanes of traffic flowing towards me. People were clearly
frightened so I elected to go up around a different way to try to get to our
house. In my head at the time I thought Paradise has established an evacuation
up over the hill, a route that’s meant for that – that I’m going to go that
direction that I’ll get to our house and I’ll go out over the top of the ridge if
I need to. I made it about a half a mile up that road and again traffic was just
starting to contraflow and both lanes of traffic we’re starting to flow downhill
and I was stuck. So I turned around – the car around because there was nowhere
else to go but to try to flow with the direction traffic was trying to flow. I
sat in the same place in traffic for probably 30 or 40 minutes and I watched
the house next to the road catch on fire. I watched the forest catch on fire and
it was the forest between me and home at that point you can’t help it but think
about what’s happening at home knowing that there’s fire there. That’s when I tried calling 9-1-1 is
when people started abandoning their cars and running down the road and you
could feel the fear in the in the people around you. I did it mostly not knowing
what else to do. This is where I first knew that things were bad enough that
nothing was ever gonna quite be the same. I called 9-1-1 for the first time in my
life here, it took me five calls to get through and when I did the woman on the
phone very calmly told me there’s nothing I can do for you. Move if
traffic moves and good luck. We’re doing what we can.
I think the real fear started to kick in there of knowing I wasn’t going to get home
and knowing what that meant and the things that I’d left behind that morning. When you walk out the door in the
morning as part of your routine you never think I’m never coming back and I
think in that moment the car it started to kick in that this was
game-changing. So the morning of the fire I got to the airport. I had a flight like
any other day so I boarded my flight and sat down at my seat and I started to
scroll Facebook and started to see – first notice that there was a pretty big fire.
First the post said ten acres then the post you know right after that said 100
acres then a thousand acres. What we didn’t know is that that was already
well below what was actually happening – that the estimates were were late and
underestimated. Contacted Kelsey and told her to be on the lookout. She sent me a
picture from the backyard and said yeah we can already see it but
at that point it was still miles away. We didn’t think that it would move so fast.
That’s where she decided to take the kids to school still. So I take off,
I get Wi-Fi on the plane, we’re texting each other and I can’t figure out why
she’s not able to get back to the house. I’m not getting the full story. In my
mind there’s there’s guards in place that are blocking it you know kind of a
thing. That emergency services as they started the evacuations aren’t letting
people back in. So I’m trying to you know encourage her to be aggressive and get
through. By the time I land I see the reports that
the whole town is on fire. And I realize I have to turn back I was
in route to Atlanta with a layover in Denver.
At some point in all this I was trying to keep in touch with Chris trying to
convey the severity of the situation without also letting on how how bad it
was. Mostly for my own self preservation of in the moment you
don’t – I didn’t want to tell myself how about how bad it was because it was
frightening. And so I go to the helpdesk and say hey can I get a
return flight – try to explain to them that there’s a fire. Very helpful they didn’t know anything about it, of course by that night it was
nightly news and remained nightly news for the next six weeks. But they didn’t
know anything about it then. They said sure we’d be happy to put you on a flight
back to California, the next flight back to Sacramento is 8 p.m. So I said well that’s not going to work, I think it’s more serious than that. So I got on a
flight to San Francisco which is three hours away from Sacramento that was three
hours from then. I called Kelsey and started talking things
through with her and realize that as she had driven up the hill she came to an
intersection to turn and the trees above her exploded in flames. She decided to go
up a different route a little further and contraflow traffic going the opposite
direction taking up all four lanes blocked her from doing that. She turned around right there never having made it home. She got
within about two miles of the house. And she was sitting stuck in traffic. She said I’m scared.
Kelsey never says she’s scared. She’s one of the most independent individuals I know. I knew how serious it was right
then. Doesn’t sound like much but if you know
her, for her to say something like that is this big. She said I’m not sure I’m
going to make it. She said she could feel the heat, she said people were running
in fear all around her. She said she could see flames and homes burning and
businesses burning. And then the cell towers burned out so
after talking to her for a few minutes I lost contact with her. But we kept in contact until the cell towers gave out which was
quite sudden and then it was just sitting in the car waiting. I don’t know it was just tense – it’s weird to
be in such an enclosed bubble and feel so tense for so long. The wind was still
blowing so hard. The wind had picked up that night before and you could just
still feel it gusting through town knowing it was carrying the fire with it.
But it just slowly and steadily crept from day into what felt like the middle
of the night. It was black. And I sat here in this seat for about 90 minutes waiting for my next
flight pulling my hair out thinking my wife is dying my home was burning my dog was
dying. Luckily only two out of three of those things were true. As I got ready to board my next
flight after sat here agony as the world raged on around me. It was oddly eerie
though – I mean it was black as night and the power is out in town now. I
remember driving through the bottom of town and and seeing the glow of the fire
as it at that point had already moved into Honey Run canyon. And just that moment
of recollection of knowing the fire is already entirely on your left
but knowing now that it’s crossed into the next canyon and it’s all around.
And seeing the emergency light system flashing in the Skyway Medical Center
and just the glow of the fire behind it. It was really sobering it was another
moment of recognizing just how bad of a situation it was turning into. There
was a handful of first responders here and there at that point in town on foot mostly trying to direct traffic at what had been the stoplights.
At one point people came through on foot and pushed cars up onto sidewalks and
into other lanes to make room for four or five fire trucks that were trying to
make their way up hill and they made about a half a lane space for some first
responder vehicles to move uphill. At that same point when they’d opened up a
small space to pass through the road some private vehicles went by downhill
that they made room for that were clearly ambulance personnel that had
piled into a private vehicle with the people that were hurt. I think in my
heart I knew that this was a situation that people were dying.
It was a sobering visual to know that it was happening in the moment. As I came up
that morning from Chico to get back to the house –
it was odd to drive back down the same route and the last few blocks of town
were already entirely leveled by the time I made it back down there again.
So apartments and houses that had been there when I drove past them a few hours
past we’re not there anymore. They were just smoldering piles
essentially but knowing that the fire was at the top of the town at the bottom
of the town it was a rather ominous feeling of everyone being trapped and
knowing that in all likelihood most of it was going to be gone at some point in
the day. As I got ready to board my next flight I
got a call from her she had made it to the edge of town and picked up the cell
towers from Chico – Chico is about 20 minutes away,
that’s where the kids go to school. So they were safe the whole day,
they were spared the trauma of that initial day. But she wasn’t and so now
she’s sitting on the edge of town just about to go on the Skyway which is the
highway that goes between Paradise and Chico and she’s at the last stretch of Main
Street where the traffic was so bogged down. It had taken her five hours to get
five miles. She said I’m okay but this is the worst of it. She
said utility poles are falling around us buildings on both sides of the road are
burning the cars hotter than it been the whole time. I’m driving through power
lines I don’t know if they’re live or not but I’m gonna keep pushing forward.
The very last portion of the drive in Paradise, both sides of the road were
burning at that point and utility lines and poles were coming down. It was hot
and you can feel the heat coming into the car and it’s hard not to let
fear just really kick in at that point to try to stay like rational in a mess
of cars where everyone else feels the same way. And all the lanes are shutting
down and people are trying to reverse course. It felt rather desperate and also
symbolic to be at the bottom of Paradise with our “Welcome to Paradise” sign and
watching it burn in all this. I stayed on the phone with her as I sat down in my
seat to make the return to flight home and
she made it through. When she made it through she went from one mile
an hour to 80 miles an hour in a matter of seconds and the initial trauma
whatever the hell that is was ended at that moment. She said I’m going to get the kids and meet you at your grandma’s house tonight. So I was on my flight and
headed home – headed to San Francisco and as we flew over California I could see the plume, I could see how big it was it looked like it covered entire counties. Of the actual burn area
you could see so much and then I saw how far the smoke was blowing. It was blowing
right toward San Francisco again San Francisco was three hours away. And where we came in to land we had to actually make multiple approaches because the smoke was so
thick that we couldn’t take the normal landing path they were expecting
to do. I landed in San Francisco and I
rented a car. I rented a car and I drove three hours in that rental car to
Sacramento airport returned that car and got back in the car that I had left
that morning then everything seemed normal. I drove home – or what’s home? I got in my car that I had left that morning I drove to my grandma’s house and I met up with Kelsey and the kids. The kids weren’t sure what had happened. The school had called them into the office and they didn’t really know what it all
meant. Again they were removed from the trauma.
I held them close and we turned on the news that night and watched the footage of our entire town being
destroyed. We sat on my grandmother’s carpet on the
floor and cried. And that’s been the beginning of our journey to here. Life has changed tremendously but it all started here at this seat in Denver airport. I believe the death toll stands at 86
people died in the fire. One of them was on our street, a neighbor. One of them
was just down the road. I remember at some point after I made it
out of traffic calling Chris when I could get to a cell service again
and saying something along the lines of people are dying. People are dying here and there’s nothing I can do about it. For these little communities 86 people
as a lot of people. For any community 86 people is a lot of people. A first
responder a few days after the fire drove through our neighborhood they were
able to confirm for us that yes the house was gone and the fences were gone
and the dog was nowhere to be seen. He also confirmed for us that our chicken
coop was still there and that the birds were in it and that they were alive. So
we were lucky enough to be driven up into the evacuation zone to pick them up.
When we went it was very last minute it was very hectic and it was getting dark
as we drove back up into the town and the only lights were the little solar
lights people had put on the pathways up to their houses but the houses weren’t
there and the roads were still a mess and full of burnt vehicles and downed
power lines and everything was smoking. But we came back to the house in the
dark and we scooped up the birds and boxed them up. It was just a confirmation of all
your worst fears. We stayed for just a few minutes then had to leave because
the town was under a curfew. It was such a brief moment of hope to know that the
birds were okay. So we took them back to where we were staying in Grass Valley
and set them up a little temporary coop and a little run. It buoyed me it gave me
hope that if the conditions were there that they could survive maybe our dog
had. And so we kept them there for a few days and we were staying with Chris’s
grandmother and she fell ill and we had to take her to the emergency room and so
the ambulance came and we’re getting her loaded up and I just remember telling
Chris like I’m gonna go lock up the birds into their their nightly pen. And
it was raining so hard the rain finally came a few days too late and I went out
to their coop and it had been ripped open and they were gone. Something broke
into their coop probably a raccoon and carried them away then they were gone. Nothing but a few feathers left. And there’s strange moments that just you
keep going because that’s the only thing you can do and it broke me to know that I’d
put them through so much and I couldn’t get to them and they still found a way
to survive just for that to happen. When the evacuation order was issued all I
could think about was getting back here to get first and foremost our animals
our dog and our chickens and our ducks. And getting stopped by like the contraflow of traffic and not making it back I just can’t stop thinking
about how scared the dog must have been and that it was it was my job to get to
him but I didn’t. We found him in the garage his remains in the garage that’s
where he always went to – he’d run to the garage when me came home that was always
his way of greeting us and I just know he was waiting for someone to come get
him. It’s heartbreaking to lose things
there’s things in our home that could never be replaced but the dog is
what haunts me every day. Chris: What do think you could have rationally done differently? I could have turned around when we were
halfway to school and Chris texted and said this fire is getting bad like I
think we should pack things up I could have turned around. We were low on fuel
in the car we’d gone to a school event the night before and hadn’t filled up.
I was going to fill up that morning if I turned around I would have had to stop
for gas at some point but if I turned around right then if I’d stopped at a
gas station somewhere on the way and gotten back to the house. I still don’t know that I would have
recognized how fast the fire was moving never experienced anything quite like
that. I think if we turned around then I think we would have watched our house
catch on fire because it burned early in the fire. When we were driving to school
we didn’t know it but we were evacuating when everyone should have been
evacuating. We just didn’t know we were evacuating. Chris: And what would the kids have been put through if you had done that? They would have saw what I saw. Being at school they didn’t watch the
town burn or people run for their lives or see things catch on fire. They lost things and have been hurt in
this but they didn’t experience a visceral fear that that was this place
on that day and I’m glad they didn’t see that.

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell

11 Comments

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  2. Omg I so feel for you and your family! We live in Oroville and could see the fire from our house. The Police came to our door that night to evacuate. But we were lucky and able to go home.i hope y’all find peace one year latter.🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

  3. Wow! Incredible to watch – thank you Chris & Kelsey for putting your hearts out to us to know what you went thru during that horrific day. What a blessing that the kids were in school, that you are together as a family. Kelsey, so thankful you made it thru – I too loved the questions Chris ask at the end. We too have had trauma in our lives, and it doesn't define you forever, but forever will be apart of your story. Hopefully you are feeling joy in your hearts once again, and healing. Hugs!

  4. I cried through this whole thing. When you cried, i cried. You were brave to make this video. Very hard to do, im sure. God bless.

  5. This absolutely broke my heart and I’m sitting here crying in the dark. I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry you had to experience this 😭😭 I really hope that one day all of you find peace and that you don’t blame yourself for anything that happened! Your pup loves you and is with you, even if not physically. He’s there and he knows you tried. The world loves you and genuinely cares about you ❤️ My heart goes out to you and I’m so sorry! God bless all of you 🙏🏼

  6. I'm so sorry y'all has to go through that. Bit I am thankful that y'all survived and are able to tell your story! I'm so glad your children didn't have to see the things you were forced to see. God Bless y'all and may God keep you and watch over y'all through this new journey.

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