ESCAPE FROM PARADISE

Thursday, November 8, 2018, started in typical fashion… I
got up around 6 a.m., put on some coffee and watched the news,
nothing of particular note. My wife Carol made an appearance
sometime later. I was scheduled for an 8 a.m. root canal after
which I planned to head for Portland. My cousin’s husband had
died not too long before. We had been up for the funeral and
initial helps, and I was returning to help her sort through
more of the tons of stuff he had carted home in typical hoarder
fashion: 20 televisions, 30 vacuum cleaners, dozens of
chainsaws, auto parts, tires… a huge task.
I went to the kitchen sink to rinse my cup and noticed the
strange light outside. I looked out the front bedroom window
and saw a red sun shining through a column of smoke. I told my
wife, “Go look out the front door.” A minute later she
returned and said, “What a pretty sunrise.” I replied, “You
didn’t see the smoke out there?” Smoke can be deceiving.
Sometimes it looks to be right behind the next ridge, and you
find out it’s 20 miles away. I took a shower and headed out
the door to my appointment.
At the dentist’s office, the receptionist Wendy commented,
“My dad just called and said there is a fire on Sawmill.”
Brenda, the dental assistant, then stated, “I’ve got to go pick
up my kids from school.” Tim, the dentist, arrived and said,
“I’m sorry, but I have to get home.” I called my wife and told
her I was going up the Skyway and up Coutelenc Rd. on the edge
of the canyon to see if I could figure out just where the fire
was and that if she needed to evacuate, to go to the CMA
church.
Ten minutes later, I could see the angry smoke boiling up
behind Sawmill Peak, and, looking down the canyon, fire was
already burning downhill towards the west branch of the north
fork of the Feather River which is directly below the Feather
River Adventist Hospital. The fire was aimed directly at the
center of Paradise.
Paradise lies at an average elevation of approximately
2,000 feet and is situated on a mostly flat-sloping ridge with
major canyons on either side. The west branch drains into Lake
Oroville, and Butte Creek, which still hosts spring salmon
runs, drains into the Sacramento River. Paradise lies in the
foothills of the Cascades in the region where the Sierras
begin. When I saw where the fire was, my thought was, “This is
no drill. This is the real thing.”
On my way back to the house, I noted that traffic was
flowing. Pentz Rd. that runs down the east side of town by the
hospital was still open, and there was already a spot fire in
upper Paradise at the Skyway and Clark Rd., a long way from the
fire front. I then thought of Gerrie, our 90-year-old family
friend who lives two blocks from us. I joked to Gerrie later
that I could picture my mother, who went to heaven at 96 years
old, shaking her cane at me and saying, “You get over there and
get Gerrie.” When I walked in the door and saw my wife’s steno
machine sitting in its normal staging position near the front
door, I asked, “Do you have a job today?” which brought a
chuckle from her. My wife is a court reporter and was planning
to take the tools of her trade with her. We decided she would
pick up Gerrie in her car and I would drive our Chevy truck and
camper and meet at the designated evacuation zone in the center
of town at the Senior Center. My wife and I had talked earlier
and decided if we ever needed to “bug out” for any reason, we
should take our camper with us as it has all we need in one
package. Thankfully, it was fueled and ready to go to
Portland.
I had also spent time thinking about important stuff to
grab in an emergency. So I quickly loaded three boxes with the
contents of the safe: emergency money, insurance policies, tax
records, etc. I drove to the end of the street and remembered
my cell phone was in my Jeep. So I walked back five doors and
grabbed it. I could hear what sounded exactly like thunder to
the northeast. Large active fires sometimes form
pyrocumulonimbus… thunderstorm clouds.
Bille Rd. is the major east-west street in the center of
town, and it was already jammed with cars seemingly going
nowhere. My wife had to turn towards the fire and drive around
the block to pick up Gerrie and was patient as Gerrie’s
90-year-old legs carried her slowly around the house gathering
up the few things she took with her. Then they joined the
flood of cars all headed west. A few minutes behind, I also
turned towards the fire for one block and then south down
Sawmill Rd. A half-mile down, I noted fire already burning on
the back of a large lot fronting Sawmill Rd. When I approached
Nunneley where I could turn and head west, traffic was at a
standstill and someone in an official capacity was trying to
direct traffic. We inched along slowly as fire appeared to the
right approximately 200 feet away. I saw it begin to devour a
house, and I could hear propane tanks exploding in the
distance.

My wife called and said, “Honey, we’re trapped. There are
flames right here. We’re going back.” I told her to go to the
CMA church as it is a designated evacuation zone. She
initially tried, but was informed by other motorists that you
couldn’t get above Bille Rd. because of the fire. She and
Gerrie next took refuge in the Safeway parking lot. But after
a few minutes, a PG&E employee told her, “We’re getting out of
here. Follow us.” The Safeway was eventually destroyed. I
never again want to hear that tone of fear and helplessness in
my wife’s voice. After that, we were not able to contact each
other because of spotty cell phone service. Thankfully, Carol
was able to reach my brother in Prineville, and he could call
both of us and get progress reports. He had been a career
firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire
Protection.

Meanwhile, back on Nunneley, traffic was not moving, and I
began to think about where the next large opening was in the
forested area. I found out later that I was trying to evacuate
in the same neighborhood where Katherine was trying to flee
with her two small children. She and her deputy sheriff
husband attend our church. She called her husband and told him
that traffic was not moving, and he was instrumental in getting
traffic temporarily halted on Clark Rd. while traffic coming
across Nunneley was allowed to advance westward as we were in
more immediate danger. After crossing Clark Rd., I was
suddenly going 30 mph… for one-half mile.
The main routes of Pearson and Skyway were four lanes all
heading out of town. I was proud to note that there seemed to
be little panic with most people driving cautiously and taking
turns when traffic streams merged and there was traffic control
in place at major intersections. I came across one vehicle
abandoned in the middle of the Skyway… perhaps out of gas.
My wife went down the Skyway, the main link between
Paradise and Chico. She and Gerrie held hands and prayed as
they drove past flaming vegetation and structures on both sides
of the road and while feeling the intense heat inside the car
from the approaching flames. As they continued down, they
passed a pickup that was on fire.
When I reached Skyway and Neal Rd., I was in the left lane
which was diverted down Neal Rd. I had to keep reminding
myself it was daytime as it was completely dark and everyone
had their lights on. We inched along for maybe a half mile and
then had more traffic merging from a side road. I noticed fire
to my right approximately 200 feet away. Traffic would move a
little and fire was less visible for a few minutes. Then it
would flare up anew. It was flanking our escape route.
About this time, traffic came to a standstill, and I began
to think I might have to pull over at some point, abandon my
camper, and jog down the road as I knew there was an area of
reduced vegetation no more than a mile down. I am 70 years
old, and it would be a good test of my new knees, the latest
having been replaced seven months before. I was a career
firefighter for 36 years, but have to admit to a queasy feeling
in the pit of my stomach about this time. With traffic not
moving, I noticed red lights ahead that were moving slowly up
the hill. And after a while, they turned off the main road…
no doubt engines trying to access the fire and protect life and
property. I had been assessing the fire to my right and had
also noticed a glow straight ahead down the hill and initially
feared that fire had spotted ahead and was burning near the
road we were evacuating on. I continued to watch and finally
could tell that the glow was on the edge of the smoke column

and I was starting to glimpse daylight. My stomach settled
back down.
As traffic was at a standstill, people behind had abandoned
their vehicles and were walking. I noticed a man on crutches,
but he was making better time than I was! About this time,
traffic began to move slowly, and I quickly caught up to the
man on crutches and gave him and his brother and dog a ride.
Brad had almost been killed 3.5 months before in Paradise when
a woman drunk driver ran a red light and hit him on his
motorcycle. She was going about 50 mph. We soon outpaced the
fire to the right that had been flanking us, and we all began
to breathe a sigh of relief. About this time, my brother Keith
called and said that Carol and Gerrie had made it to Chico and
would wait for me there.
Brad evacuated without his medications and was cramping
badly. So we decided to take him to Enloe Hospital in Chico
where he had spent so much time and could resupply with meds.
When we got to Highway 99, they would not let traffic turn
towards Chico, so we had to detour out through the farmlands
and drive in stop-and-go traffic to get to the hospital where I
dropped off Brad and his brother.
It took my wife 2.5 hours to evacuate and travel less than
20 miles, and it took me 5.5 hours to evacuate and rejoin her.
The fire was and is a tragedy of the first order with 86
people dead, 90% of the town destroyed, and people’s lives
changed dramatically. The destruction that occurred in 10 to
12 hours is hard to fathom. I had told people before that
under the right set of circumstances the whole town could be
wiped out, but I had been lucky to live in Paradise for 39
years and felt relatively safe living in the center of town. I
also knew how aggressively fires are fought in and around
Paradise and had participated in some of those efforts.
On one fire, I parked the engine on an inside corner of
Honey Run Rd., the original route up to Paradise, which is only
1.5 lanes wide and infrequently used. I heard a bulldozer
operating somewhere up the hill not visible through the brush,
trees, and smoke, but decided to relocate my engine to another
drainage approximately 1.5 blocks down the road. No sooner had
I walked back to my original location than a large boulder
plopped into the road right where my engine had been parked a
few minutes before.
There were many tragic and harrowing events of November 8,
2018, that would be recounted in the weeks to come. There were
also tales of selfless, heroic deeds and the supportive actions
of governmental agencies, private industry, businesses,
churches, and fellow citizens all coming to our rescue.
I feel for the elderly and infirm, for those who lost loved
ones including pets, for those who lost homes and jobs, for
traumatized school children, and for all of those living on the
edge who wound up in shelters… such a human toll. My own

cousin Elaine, whose husband had died recently, also lost a
house in Paradise, and then had to put down one of her beloved
dogs not long after… as she so aptly put it, “The makings of
a Country-Western song!” There is also much to be thankful
for: The fire occurred during daylight hours; people did not
allow panic to overwhelm their judgment; the smoke stayed high,
for if it had been right on the deck, hundreds could have
perished.
On a personal level, we escaped with our new car, truck and
camper, and were able to take others out with us. We have
supportive friends and families. Our church survived and is
being used as a location to support the recovery effort. Our
insurance company, Farmers, was responsive and generous.
Before the fire, a longtime friend Deena offered to sell us a
2017 22′ Jayco toy hauler, and we were considering that
purchase, which we are now living in. Earlier in 2018, we had
decided that we want to relocate to Sisters in 2020 when my
wifes retires, after visiting the area for years, and having
family roots all over Oregon and Washington. So our focus is
on the road ahead. I am so thankful I had 39 years to live in
Paradise, a unique and wonderful place that will eventually
rise from the ashes.

Grayson and Carol