By: R. Lawrence
Being the caregiver for my wife in the final stages of COPD, November 8th was like most other days. At 5:30 a.m. I woke to change my wife over from her ventilator to her compressor and let her return to her peaceful sleep. I went outside to another beautiful sunrise and a soft gentle breeze and thanked the Lord for the day and the blessing of living in Paradise.
Knowing that my wife would normally sleep for a couple of hours I ate a light breakfast, lay down on the couch and began to doze when the neighbor began pounding on the back door. Living in a quiet senior community, it was unlike anyone to be pounding on the door, so I rushed to find out what he wanted. All too soon I found out what the problem was, the problem that would change the rest of my life.
Fire, and it wasn’t in the distance, it was right on us. The sky was black, and you could see the flames shooting overtop of the trees. The thick smell of wood smoke felt like the reapers hand around my throat, choking me. At my age death has a certain fascination about it and, God forgive me, I thought how beautiful this was as I stared with fascination at the oncoming devastation. Hot ashes dropping all around snapped me back to reality and I ran back to the house.
I called 911 and was told to evacuate and to evacuate, now! They told me that two of the three roads out of town were engulfed in fire and that I was to use Skyway, a two-lane road and evacuate to Chico. I wakened my wife and told her of the situation, helped her get ready and packed the car with her oxygen supplies and left. Taking a cross street to get to Skyway we ran into bumper to bumper traffic that brought us to a halt.
Skyway was impassable as traffic flowed in from the side streets and down Skyway the main thoroughfare in Paradise and the main exit from Magalia the town above. One of the two lanes were reserved for emergency vehicles the other lane was being used to evacuate over 30,000 people. Locked in traffic with flames two to four feet high on both sides of the road, it’s hard to describe all the thoughts going through my mind. Akin to what I believe reliving my life would be like, I began to experience all the grief, all the hopes, the sorrows and fears. I sat there in silence with my wife, holding hands, as we surrendered and began preparing to die.
The sky had become pitch black and the flames began licking at the small trees surrounding the road, occasionally jumping the road, then back again like a dance designed to terrify us. Cars and trucks were being abandoned along the side of the road. People walking along the road looking stunned their eyes pleading for help. My car was full of oxygen tanks, compressors and a ventilator so I was unable to help. A pick-up that was behind me driven by two young men with shaven heads, nose rings and tattoos pulled over and loaded them into the back of the truck. Lord, let me never again judge people by the way they look. I began to observe what was happening around me. No one was pounding on their horns or yelling obscenities at others, just the opposite. People were allowing others coming in from the side streets to alternate coming on to Skyway and even though it meant traffic was moving slower it was heartwarming to see and began restoring my faith in mankind, especially the younger generations.
The firemen had given up trying to fight the fire and were doing all they could to just keep the flames from engulfing the road and helping people whose car had broken down get to safety. People were on the back of bull dozers, trucks, ambulances. The police were directing traffic and going car to car reassuring drivers that things would soon begin to clear up, asking if we needed help, not thinking of the hours that they would have to work nor the danger they to themselves. Young volunteers from a local church came car to car offering much needed coffee and a short prayer for our safety but we remained in grid lock.
Then, without explanation a calm came over both my wife and me as we looked knowingly at each other and just smiled. As a Christian I believe that it was the Holy Spirit and that the Lord had sent his ministering angels to go before us as an advance guard, behind us as a rear guard and to our sides protecting our flanks, keeping us safe physically and spiritually. Without explanation the authorities opened the second lane and like a cork being removed from a bottle the traffic began to move. As we moved towards safety it was much like coming up from a deep dive, the sky like the ocean became lighter, then lighter, and we no longer saw flames by the side of the road.
After three hours we finally reached the four-lane highway and began to move at freeway speeds and soon reached Chico, away from the fire, away from the danger. We stopped for food and had a decision to make. Were we to go south to the Bay Area to stay with my sister who lived alone, or go north to Oregon where my wife’s family resides? We went south to the Bay Area arriving about four hours later. After settling in we called friends and family to let them know that we were safe. The news networks were all covering the fire and we anxiously watched for any information on our house, our friends, our town, however there was no specific information, just devastation.
The following day, we awoke to more coverage of devastation, but of no help. So we went to the internet to follow the Butte County emergency site. There it was — a drone taking pictures of the town and surrounding areas. Suddenly there appeared a picture of our home. Totally destroyed, nothing but ashes. Not only our home but our friends’ and neighbors’ homes, our church and most of the town. Eighty-seven dead, over four hundred and fifty structures burned. These were not just numbers. They were our friends. These were our homes. This was our town. I looked at my wife who had begun crying. I, even though hardened by life, I too began to cry. It was more like uncontrollable sobbing. I felt nauseated and the pain of emptiness racked my chest. Although painful it was the beginning of closure. Nonetheless it was a difficult price to pay.
Now it was time for another nightmare to begin. Dealing with insurance companies, the EPA, FEMA, and the local bureaucracies. However, that is another story, for another time.