(Mike and Deon Mangan are part of the team that facilitated my visits to the Sacramento area – and are great friends of this site. Several times, they acted as my primary drivers in the area. Mike looks almost exactly like my high school band director. The Mangans were among the families evacuated from the fires that swept through central California early last month. Both work in Paradise, which was hardest hit by the fires and live only a few miles away. Though this story is long, it is a gripping first-person account, from not knowing anything was amiss in the morning through suddenly crawling through a raging inferno. I could not put it down. It is the story of one of our own who lived through what all of us were watching on the news last month.-CJ)
By Deon Mangan
My Story of the Fire on Thursday, November 8, 2018
Today is 3 weeks since the fire. There was a scheduled meeting in Chico to update community members about possible access to parts of Paradise, and perhaps Magalia through Paradise. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to flash flood warnings. Parts of Hwy 99 were closed in both directions due to flooding for a time tonight due to intense rain. There were mudslides on Honey Run also.
We are truly blessed. This has been a challenging time, one where we see the best in people, and infrequently less than the best in ourselves and others.
So, let me tell you about our morning on Thursday, Nov 8th. My husband, Mike, and I were up and getting ready for work. Our home is located in upper Magalia at about the 2,800-foot level. We live about 10 miles from our jobs in different parts of Paradise. Magalia is a small, unincorporated community up the hill from the Town of Paradise. We both work in Paradise, and we attend daily Mass, so we were getting ready to leave for St. Thomas More Catholic Church and then off to our jobs in separate cars, due to our different schedules and responsibilities.
At approximately 7:45 am I received a telephone call from the Head Chef / Director of Outreach at St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church, where I am Parish Administrator and Office Manger, about our planned free hot meal for the day. (St. Nicks’ feeds 200-250 people twice per week.) She told me there was a fire with thick smoke in Paradise, and she thought there might be an evacuation. (A call like this has never happened before in my almost 7 years on the job there.) She thought it might be best to provide sandwiches on the patio for those in need, but not obligate our volunteers in an evacuation situation. I thought she had a good idea, and suggested texting the pastor with a quick 5 minutes to respond before putting the plan into action.
That phone call made a tremendous difference to my husband and me. We were given an extra 15 minutes to pack. Instead of just having a back pack with one change of clothes in a “go bag” in the trunks of our cars, we had time to pack a couple of small suitcases each. (One suggestion, if you have time to pack before an evacuation, bring your dirty clothes bag with you. I ended up with a whole bag of shirts and only 2 pairs of pants. In my rush, I just wasn’t thinking clearly about the other clothes available only a wash away.) While packing I started calling family who also live in Magalia. One sister was already at a school evacuating her grandson, who had been dropped off earlier in the morning. I called my other sister who lives with and takes care of my elderly mother, who has COPD, and is on oxygen 24 hours per day. I wanted to make sure they knew of the possible evacuation, so they could begin planning.
At this point, Mike and I did not expect to be in an emergency situation. We were still both rushing to get our packing done for a possible evacuation and get out in our separate cars to daily Mass. If we had really expected an emergency, we would have traveled together. This choice would lead us to follow an incredible “twisty-turny” plan of God to touch the lives of others later.
I left home about 8:15 am heading down the hill from Magalia toward Paradise. We have lived in Magalia for over 25 years. When we first moved there, the trees were tall. Now they’ve grown up so much more, that to see a long distance, I needed to be at the end of my block. When I first saw the plume of smoky clouds, it reminded me of a movie, Dante’s Peak, or video I’ve seen of volcanoes exploding. The cloud was very vertical, not horizontal at this stage. Also, the intense winds were causing it to roil, like rapidly boiling water. I truly have never seen anything like it in person. It was scary and ominous.
I proceeded down Skyway and, as I crossed the dam, used my cell phone to take pictures of Sawmill Peak, the largest in our area. I could see that the fire and smoke were coming around the peak on the right side, but it still looked a distance away.
From Deon’s Cell Phone on Dam, 8:15-8:30 am, Smoke and Fire at Sawmill Peak
Then as I proceeded into the narrow two-lane part of Skyway, the winding part of the road between Magalia and Paradise, I could see between the trees into the fields, and the fire was closer and closer. Finally, as I got near Paradise, I could see the fire was immediately behind the trees at the edge of the road. This was approximately 8:30 am. There were no fire or police at this part of Skyway yet, but I knew that it would be only a matter of minutes. I called both of my sisters in Magalia and told them that the fire was at the edge of the road near Old Magalia, and the only way out for Magalia residents would be up Skyway through Stirling City and Butte Meadows. (FYI-I used my cell phone during this event while driving. I do not normally do this, nor do I recommend it, but in these extraordinary circumstances, I did.)
(A note: There was a big fire in Paradise back in 2008. Many homes in lower Paradise in the area of Neal Rd. were lost, and the 4 different roads out of Paradise all became blocked at one point. There was only one road out of Magalia, up the hill, requiring gravel and dirt road driving for part of the trip. After the fire in 2008, the road that had been proposed and then every year dropped from the budget for over 35 years by the State Legislature, was finally completed. On 4th of July weekend, 2017, Mike and I took a drive on this new road. We wanted to make sure that in the event of an emergency, we could really get out without a 4-wheel drive car. We found it to be a really nice drive above Inskip, and only took 45 minutes to get from our home to the Bambi Inn – a local landmark – in Butte Meadows.)
So, I was now in Paradise. I knew with the fire behind me, I would be going down the hill to Chico through the town. Mike was about five minutes behind me in his car coming from Magalia. As I approached the intersection of Clark Rd and Skyway the traffic was moving pretty well. I was talking to my sister about how things were going, and she was remarking about the idiots who were clogging the gas stations and were out of gas. I admitted that I would soon be one of those idiots. I had been working late hours all week, and hadn’t felt like doing the “one more stop” on the way home. I knew that I would never make it out without gas. The station at Clark and Skyway was packed. As I proceeded through the intersection, I noticed what looked like someone burning leaves in a field across the street, near the Eagles Hall where they have Bingo. I was thinking how strange it was to be burning leaves in the intense wind. At that point, someone ran across Skyway with a fire extinguisher to put out the fire. Of course, it wasn’t a planned burn, it was another outbreak of the fire.
The night before the fire, as I was going to bed, I heard how strong the winds were. I remarked to Mike about it then, and the next morning, before hearing anything about the fire, I remarked how strong the winds were again. We had been getting warnings from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) all week by email, telephone call, and text, about them turning off the power in the event of high winds. I remember wondering as I was getting ready that morning how much stronger the winds would need to be for them to turn off the power.
We now know that the fire stated in Pulga, across Butte County around 6:30 am. Here we were in Paradise at 8:30+ and there were fires bursting out, setting trees on fire. I heard that at one point the fire was moving at 80 football fields a minute. The strong winds kept driving the embers of the fire further and further away. I saw a picture of the charred remains of a sheet of paper that drifted to the ground down in Chico. This just shows how far and easily the fire was being spread by the wind.
I went a little further down Skyway (the main road from Magalia, through Paradise, down to the valley floor in Chico). I came to another intersection at Wagstaff and Skyway with two more gas stations. The one on my left was packed again, with lines out to the street, but the one on my right had only one car at each of 4 pumps, so I slipped in behind one car, and moved right up and got my gas next, and then back out on the road. This was probably about 8:40 am. I knew I was too late for daily Mass at this point, because it was due to start at 8:30. It then took me about 20 minutes to go a fraction of a mile from Wagstaff to Bille, because now we were in bumper to bumper traffic with everyone trying to get down the hill.
I now thought I would be smarter than all the other drivers on Skyway. I would go down a short distance to a parallel road to Skyway, called Oliver, and I would bypass all the traffic. Another reason for going down to Oliver is that I was now headed to my job at the St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church as Parish Administrator. I thought I would go in very quickly, check all the doors, make sure everyone was out, and then leave. However, my choice to go down to Oliver was a BIG MISTAKE. In hindsight, I realize that all the small roads were feeding into Oliver, and then the whole road needed to end up back on Skyway further down, but no one was letting this large group of cars back in. This decision would be very important to me and to others caught in the fire.
Mike was five minutes behind me. When he got into Paradise at Clark and Skyway, it was becoming controlled chaos. The small leaf fire that I passed a few minutes earlier had now erupted into several trees blazing. The fire was threatening all the cars going down Skyway at this point, so the backup of traffic was now headed down Clark Rd.
Mike had a choice to make; get into the long line of traffic stuck at Clark or push through the fire on Skyway. At that point a scene from a movie we like jumped into his mind (our family are big movie buffs), Frequency, with Jim Caviezel. This is an interesting story with time travel, mystery whodunnit, and baseball, partially set in New York City during the 1969 World Series. In the story the son as an adult tells his father in the past that he made the wrong decision as a fireman in a key fire. He said you need to go against your instincts and go the other way to save your life. Mike took this as a sign and gunned the accelerator and went down Skyway. As he passed the conflagration on his right, other cars started following him too. In a few minutes he caught up with more cars, but he saw that some were going through a small auto repair shop and then were disappearing down the road. When he got closer, he realized they were cutting the corner, and then going down Rocky Lane which connects with Wagstaff, Clark, and his destination on Elliott of St. Thomas More Catholic Church.
As he approached the intersection at Clark and Wagstaff he noticed that everyone there, pedestrians and drivers in cars alike were looking up at this huge tree near the shopping center. It looked like it was covered with Christmas lights, but that didn’t make sense in early November. All at once, the tree exploded in fire. They weren’t Christmas lights but small flames all over the tree. So, Paradise was burning in multiple places from the spot fires being spread by the embers and intense winds. As soon as the people on the street and in their cars saw this, there was a collective deep breath, and then everyone jumped into action at the same time. Mike accelerated around the corner and was out ahead of all the cars now headed down Clark Road.
Back on Oliver over the next three hours, I had lots of time between moving up a car length or so, to make more phone calls and send text messages. At this point I contacted my brother who lives in Central California and my daughter who lives in LA and a niece in the Bay Area. I sent them the pictures of Sawmill Peak that I took while crossing the dam, and asked them to pray for all of us.
My family has been living on the Ridge (Paradise, Magalia, and above) since 1973. At the time of the fire there were 25-30 of us living in homes and apartments, most in Magalia, but some in Paradise. This is a big family to pray for getting everyone out safely.
During this time on Oliver, I was also in communication with my boss at St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church, a female rector. She was evacuating with her three teenage children down Neal Road. We were trying to account for the different parishioners and my Office Angels (volunteers who staff the parish office during the week). These are retired 70, 80, and 90-year-olds, who do a wonderful job helping the 200-250 people from the community who come for our free meals twice per week. (Not important to my story, but I’m very proud of them, recently they have been posting on Social Media for the Church on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. I love it when they can tell their children that they have been re-tweeted.)
As the time is slowly passing, I thought several times about whether I should backtrack and go back to Bille and Skyway. My concern was how much more delayed I might be, and if I could even get all the way back from where I had progressed to.
At about 11:00, I had moved about 2 miles down Oliver. It was getting darker and more smoky as time went on. The Pastor and I had one more conversation about various parishioners and Office Angels. She mentioned one woman who was waiting for the Sheriff’s Department to come pick her up, (let’s call her Pam -I don’t want to use anyone’s name without their permission. I will tell the story honestly, but I will leave out or change the names of everyone except Mike and me.) I could see with the excruciatingly slow progress on the roads, that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would have been able to get to her house. Pam lived close to the church, off Oliver. I told the Pastor I would call Pam. I told Pam that I was near her home, and I would be happy to have her come with me. There was room in the car for her and her bags, and I would love the company. Pam will turn 94 in December. She suffers from a vision problem and is legally blind and unable to see at night. She had been driving up until recently but would not have been able to drive herself out from her home in the growing darkness of the smoke.
I had been to Pam’s house in the past, but not often, and always coming from the opposite direction. I couldn’t remember the street name that she lived on. So, I asked her, “Pam, what’s the name of your street?” She told me, and there, not 20 feet from me was her street sign. I turned down the street, went to her house and picked her up. Despite having been to her home many times, the wind had blown leaves and pine needles across the roads and driveways. I remembered the area, but still missed the turn for her driveway. So I had to turn around. Then the driveway splits three more times. I think it is highly unlikely that anyone would have been able to get to her street in the traffic, or once there find her home in the growing darkness.
So, we are back on Oliver a little after 11 am. I have been in communication with Mike on and off throughout the morning by text and a couple of short conversations. (His cellphone battery was not holding a charge, so he didn’t want to use up the battery with talking.) One of the things that gave me hope was when Mike was telling me about the quiet heroics of the Plant Manager at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. This hard-working man was making sure that the Charter School (former Catholic School) was evacuated. Then as frantic parents arrived for their children, he let them know where to pick up the children in Chico. This man was going around the Church building and offices, getting our Sacrament Ledgers, turning off the gas, helping the Pastor gather his Vestments and leaving. Taking care of everyone and everything else, before himself. This manager’s wife was waiting at the Church for him, and Mike was waiting there for me too. The two of them had a cup of tea together and looked for ways to help out at the parish before evacuating.
From Deon’s Cell Phone 11:08 am, tail lights and darkening sky in Paradise on Oliver Rd.
Pam and I progressed up Oliver at a terribly slow pace. I remember checking my phone using GPS to see how close we were to the St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church. At one point we were 0.6 miles, then 0.4, getting closer. At one point the two-lane road became two lanes both going in the same direction toward Skyway. We were around the intersection with Valley View, a large section of beautiful custom-built homes in Paradise. There was an older man in the intersection directing traffic. He was about 60 or 70 years old and was holding a handkerchief over his mouth because the smoke was getting so thick. I rolled down the window of my car and asked him if he was an emergency worker with the Town of Paradise. He said, “No, I’m just a volunteer. … Now roll up that window and get something over that elderly woman’s mouth and nose to keep the smoke out.” Well, there was no arguing with that.
At this point we went down into a ravine with a bank about 20 feet high on the left. I was starting to see an orange glow in the sky over the bank. It was at this point that I had a temptation to fear and panic. I felt trapped. The car wasn’t moving, it was growing increasingly dark, and if fire swept over that bank, I would not have been able to get Pam, who uses a cane to walk, out of the path of the fire. All I could imagine doing was covering her with my arms and body and know that we would both die there. One of the graces that helped me resist this temptation was the other quiet heroes, going about their business in the unfolding emergency – the Plant Manager at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, the volunteer directing traffic in the smoke, and my husband patiently waiting for me a mile away. Their faithfulness gave me courage. I thought that if I go out, I want to be like them. It gave me hope. I was also heartened by the thought that if I were to die, I had the great grace of being in a “state of grace”. I have no illusions that I would be going straight to Heaven. I’m sure there would be time in Purgatory, but the grace that comes from daily Eucharist and the Rosary, monthly Confession, and participating in my faith was also very reassuring. I realized that if this was the day that God was taking me home, then I was ready, and I wanted to go out like his other quiet heroes.
Next, I noticed the volunteer directing traffic walking up toward Skyway. We had been stopped for what seemed like a very long time with no forward progress. I’m not sure, but I think he went up to the corner and started having the drivers on Skyway let the cars on Oliver in, one at a time. We started slowly inching forward. Now we were finally turning the corner on Oliver, I could see in the distance and smoke the traffic light at Skyway. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, but we were making progress. I had hoped to pull into the St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church parking lot, but as we got close, it was almost noon. The power was out. It seemed like the cell towers were down, no texts or emails were getting through from Mike. I was concerned for delaying any longer. So, as I approached the Church on the left and Jack-in-the-Box on the right, I said a holy prayer of protection for St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church. This was one of those times when the Holy Spirit inspires you, prays through you, and it was an intense prayer of holy protection for the Church, buildings, grounds, and asking the holy angels and saints to put a bubble of protection over the property.
As I approached the corner of Skyway, I sent one more text to Mike, telling him that I was close, and asking him to leave for Chico. Because the cell towers seemed to be down, I hadn’t heard back from him. I told Pam that if we got to Skyway and hadn’t heard from Mike, we would have to go to St. Thomas More and look for him.
In the meantime, Mike was still at St. Thomas More waiting for me. The Plant Manager from STM had finished all he could do at the parish, and he and his wife were ready to go. They did not want to leave Mike alone; however, he assured them he would be okay, and he was going to wait for me. His plan was to wait as long as he could, and if he felt threatened in any way, he would go into the church and pray at the foot of the altar before the Blessed Sacrament, which was still in residence, and wait there. In the meantime, he turned his car facing downhill, watching for me to arrive from the direction of Oliver and then Skyway. Since I had sent Mike a text encouraging him to go, he prayed a fervent prayer, asking for guidance from God about whether he should stay or go. “Lord, if you want me to go, please give me a very clear sign.” He prayed this because he really didn’t want to leave without me.
Within five minutes a Paradise Policeman drove up and asked Mike if he was okay, and if there was anything wrong with the car. Mike told the officer that he was waiting for me, and that I was stuck on Oliver. The officer told Mike that he had just driven by Oliver and that the fire was not there. He said that the cars were coming off Oliver a few at a time, and that I would be out of there soon. When I got off Oliver, I would be sent down Skyway to Chico. He said, “You need to leave right now.” He also said that the cell towers were not down, just overloaded with so many messages. He said that eventually the messages would get through to your wife. So, Mike, following the rule of obedience to legitimate authority (and the clear sign from God which came promptly within five minutes of his prayer for direction), sent me one last text message and went down to join the bumper to bumper throngs heading to Chico.
Pam and I would need to travel about a half a block out of our way from Skyway, but there was a lot of traffic and a checkpoint in between. Skyway was now all traveling down the hill. The two lanes in each direction were now four lanes going down, and the extra center turn lane made it five lanes going down the hill. With all the power out and the smoke so dark, the only thing visible were the red tail lights of the cars all heading down the hill. This was around Noon, and I remember looking up to no sun, and then the wind would blow the smoke for a moment, and you would see a red glowing ball, then the smoke would cover it again. The moment felt at one time surreal, while also Scriptural and Apocalyptic.
We slowly made our way across the five lanes of traffic from the right side to the left. As I approached the intersection of Elliott, I could see a checkpoint. At each intersection there were emergency workers. Some were police officers, some Town of Paradise, and others, volunteers. About half had something over their mouths. They were out there in the smoke, traffic, and approaching fire, and their sole focus was on helping us and getting us to safety. These quiet heroes saved many that day.
As I got close to the intersection, I was pretty sure that they would not let me go up the half black to STM to check for Mike. So, I slipped into the Veteran’s Hall parking lot, and slipped out on Elliott Road. The intersection and checkpoint were a little distance away, and they were focused elsewhere, so I went quickly up the hill to St. Thomas More. I was completely relieved when I saw there was no dark blue Toyota in the lower Church parking lot, so Mike was gone. Just to be extra sure, I went up to the back-school parking lot, and no one was there either. I had now been in the car for about four hours and knew there was bumper to bumper traffic down to Chico. Not knowing how much longer it would take, I made a quick pit stop. I had a key, since I work at STM, and let myself into the restroom. As I got out of the car and back in, I heard a loud booming sound coming every few seconds from the direction of Clark Road. It was only the next day that I realized it was probably the sound of propane tanks exploding. Mike told me later that he and the Plant Manager and his wife heard the explosions also, and that was one of the reasons they were reluctant to leave him.
Mike had now reached the worst of the fire. The four lanes of Skyway going down the hill to Chico were suddenly forced into two lanes by a huge tree that had fallen onto the power lines and was bursting into fire. He was impressed that the emergency workers were still out directing traffic and helping drivers in spite of fire breaking out around them. They were helping the four lanes of frantic drivers to merge into two lanes. The fire was so close to the edge of the road on both sides that the pickup truck ahead of him was kicking up embers and sparks into the right lane. This was making it so that Mike had to move into the center of the two lanes, straddling the line, so that it was now just one lane of traffic going downhill. And he could see the traffic behind him doing the same, which turned out to be a good thing. This was because the flames from the fire on both sides was like a wall of flame. The heat was so intense that he could feel heat from the driver side. But he could feel waves of heat coming from the passenger side, even with the window rolled up. Mike looked to make sure that the glass hadn’t melted or the windows rolled down in the fire letting the heat in. The window was up, it was just that hot driving through the fire on both sides. He felt it was like the movie, The Ten Commandments, where Moses goes through the Red Sea with the walls of water on either side. As he looked to the sides, he could see homes on both sides, fully engulfed in flames. Sadly, these were the homes of friends we know who were losing their lifetime of memories and belongings.
In spite of this dire situation, Mike was feeling strangely calm, because he was praying the Rosary using a CD we have from the Mary Foundation. His thoughts and prayers were only for me. Mike was praying for my safety, knowing that I was somewhere behind him, and trusting in Our Lord and Our Lady to get me out to safety too.
Back at STM, I was done quickly in the bathroom and got back in the car with Pam. We headed down Elliott and then Almond to cut off as much of the traffic as we could. I cut in one block before Pearson, which I could see was also backed up. We now joined the 4 lanes of traffic proceeding down Skyway. When we approached the curve at Neal Rd and Schmale with Skyway a new arm of the fire came into view. It was surrounding the large two-story Health Clinic at the edge of town. I was impressed because it seemed to be surrounding one end in a semi-circle, but the clinic was not “yet” burning. It appeared that it would go at any time. We continued slowly down Skyway.
(This last week, I learned that a friend of a friend from the St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church had walked around this health clinic and blessed not only the building but the grounds with blessed water and oil a month before the fire. The Health Clinic survived the fire.)
Now Pam and I were in the thick of the fire. The two lanes normally heading down Skyway from Paradise to Chico had been blocked from a large fallen tree and power lines, so the emergency response four lanes were now down to two. As we went down Skyway, we could see fire on both sides of us. Everything was on fire. Buildings, homes, trees. You could see the framing of the homes burning after the outside was gone. I remember driving under the “Welcome to Paradise” sign burning. At this point I was in the left lane, driving at about 40-45 mph, and while I thought it would make a great picture, I didn’t take the risk of taking a picture over my shoulder with my phone. I thought I would leave it for someone else. It seemed to tell the story. Paradise was “on fire”.
From Facebook: Brandon Johnson
At one point, Pam said she could feel the heat coming in through the closed window as we drove through the fire on both sides of us. I thought to myself, if they are having us drive through this inferno, how much worse must it be behind us, what danger must Paradise be in to have us go this way. As we got down Skyway near the golf course, there was a burned-out truck or van in the center of the median. All that was left of it was the metal shell smoldering. Later I heard from a friend who made it to Chico that their lug nuts had melted onto the rims. Other cars made it to Chico with their plastic molding melted and then cooled like dripping wax from a candle. I saw one of these in a post on Facebook.
At the bottom of the Skyway my cellphone started chiming with the arrival of all of the messages from the last hour. There were a total of 23, and most of them were from Mike! I immediately called him, and we agreed to meet at a shopping center close-by.
Pam and I arrived in Chico – FINALLY – at 1:00 pm. It had taken me just less than 5 hours to drive what would have been a 35-40-minute drive from our home in Magalia to a shopping center parking lot in Chico. Mike was waiting for me there. We hugged each other like never before. Holding on for minutes before we could let go. It was SO WONDERFUL to be together.
This is the most important message for me. As sad as the loss of life is, the count is now up to 88. However, approximately 50,000 people made it off the Ridge on Thursday, November 8th. Paradise is about 25,000-27,000 people. But up above Paradise, there are a whole series of small communities (Paradise Pines, Magalia, De Sabla, Lovelock, Stirling City, Inskip) whose population totals about 25,000 people also.
My entire extended family of 25-30 made it all off the hill safely. About half lost their homes or apartments. However, half of our homes survived. Mine, my sister’s, and my mother’s all survived. Three nieces also had their homes make it. There is an entire section of Magalia that is still there with power on and water. My sister who is back there living now, said it is like an oasis in a sea of destruction. When she returned to her home before Thanksgiving, she said it was as if she never left. No smell of smoke or sign of anything wrong. She estimates that 1/3 of Magalia survived. The small business section of Magalia made it too.
In Paradise, the Holiday Market Shopping Center made it through, as did the Save Mart / Kmart, but the Safeway did not.
The St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church made it through unscathed. The apartments and homes on the left are all gone. On the right side of the property, the shrubs burned, but the property, Church, buildings, are all okay. The flower garden in front of the church is still in bloom. Across the street the Jack-in-the-Box, which we visited frequently, burned.
St. Thomas More Catholic Church survived also. The former Catholic School, now Charter, on the property also survived. The Parish Hall, old rectory turned meeting rooms and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium, and new rectory all burned down. The Parish Hall is 12 feet from the back-conference room/office in the Church. My desk as Coordinator of Religious Education for the parish sits at the window of the conference room there. The window is double-paned. One pane of the window broke in the heat from the fire. The bush outside the window also burned, and the people who have been there since the fire say they found a hose there, so someone was protecting the church by dousing the flames on the bush. If the second pane of glass had broken, the fire would have gotten inside the church office, and then taken the whole church.
St. Thomas More Church survived. Taken a couple of days after the fire.
St. Thomas More old Rectory (More House) burned, as did the Parish Hall and new Rectory. School survived in the background.
We had friends in Chico offer to have us stay with them, but after the harrowing day, we decided to get further away and went down near Modesto to stay with my brother. On the way out of town, parts of Chico and Durham were now being evacuated. Both of my friends who had offered to have us stay with them were now under evacuation orders.
My sisters, who had been evacuated up the hill from Magalia, went to Stirling City. At about 10:30 that night they were evacuated from Stirling City. My mother and one sister went one way to Chico to a shelter at that point. My other sister went up to Butte Meadows, which was then evacuated around 3:30 am. So, she was evacuated three times in one day. She eventually ended up in Chico also.
The next day I was in a restaurant near Modesto. It was time for my meltdown, and I just started losing it – Crying in frustrated not to be able to get on Wi-Fi. This wasn’t just to check my email; my family was half unaccounted for. Everything was saying to get online to report your “safe” status, check on loved ones, etc. A young woman at the restaurant who was a bus girl, not even the waitress, came up as we were getting ready to leave, and gave me a $20 gift card for Starbucks. She said she had been evacuated from the Rim Fire, and she knew how it felt. Here was this young woman, just beginning to put her life back together, and sharing with me from her small earnings. I thanked her, humbled, but also encouraged.
A couple of days later we dropped Pam at her son and daughter-in-law’s home in south Sacramento. They were appreciative and gracious. They gave me a beautiful box of designer chocolates and a card, which Mike and I opened later. It included a $50 gift card. Her daughter-in-law pulled me aside and told me that they had been checking the maps, and Pam’s home had been destroyed in the fire. If I hadn’t driven separately from Mike, and stupidly or selfishly taken the wrong turn down Oliver, Pam would probably not be around for her 94th birthday in a couple of weeks. God used my poor decisions to rescue a wonderful survivor of the Battle of Britain with an incredible dry English humor. I am grateful that He used me as His instrument in this, but it was not any of my doing – just His.
After a few days near Modesto, we made our way to Christ the King Retreat Center in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. We stayed there for the weekend. The Retreat Center warmly welcomed us, since we had been staying there for the Diaconate weekends since September. As God’s providential plan will have it, St. Thomas More women’s retreat was that weekend. Of the 14 scheduled women, only two came from our parish. Unfortunately, both had lost their homes. Without knowing each other, they had both been attending the same Saturday 5 pm Vigil Mass every week. One of the women had a picture of her burned out lot, and diagonally from hers was the other woman’s lot, also burned out.
God used us to share some of our blessings with one of these women. When we opened the nice card from Pam’s family there was a wonderful $50 gift card in it. We knew we didn’t need it, so we prayed about who do give it to. Immediately the woman from the parish came to mind. She had met the other woman the week before the fire, while applying for a Thanksgiving basket. I gave the woman the gift card, and said she could use it for Thanksgiving dinner, or some new clothes. She pointed to her clothing and said those were her only clothes since the fire.
Later we shared the box of chocolates with some STM parishioners in a shelter in Chico where my mother and sister were staying. Concern for my mother’s health and wanting her near medical care kept her in the shelter longer than many of us wanted her there. While at the shelter we gave another parishioner the Starbuck’s card. She had a Safeway card she didn’t need, which could be used to buy gas as well as groceries. We had a sister leaving Chico for Redding in an old van, gas guzzler. The card for gas was exactly what she needed.
Each step along the way, God was using us to connect with His people. This wasn’t our doing. We were just conduits of His grace. One story seems still a little strange to me, but I will share it with you to illustrate. At one point we were trying to decide where to eat in Sacramento. I was in the mood for Mexican food and named a few places. I also said a prayer about where we should go, and I felt like God was telling me “Taco Bell”. I mentioned this option to my husband, and he rejected it, but I hadn’t told him about my prompting. Then we were driving around, missed several turns, and came around the corner, and there was Taco Bell. At this point it seemed like a good option, so we went in. We haven’t eaten there recently, and there were new items on the menu. I ordered something that I thought would be a filling meal, but instead was a small item. So, I went back to order something else. As I was approaching the counter an ambulance went by with its siren sounding. Whenever I hear a siren, I bless myself and pray for the people in need and the emergency workers helping them. This goes back to 9-11 times. I didn’t even think about it, just did it. After I ordered my items, a young worker who was on break came up and said to add an item for him, and he would pay for it. Charlie has taught me to respectfully accept help when it is offered by someone, it is a grace to them as well as us. So, I thanked him, and asked why he was helping me, he couldn’t know we were evacuees from the fire. He said it was because of my Christian witness blessing myself at the ambulance. We never know when our actions will be scrutinized. I thanked him and felt humbled. Is this why God wanted me to go to Taco Bell? For the young man? For me? I still don’t know.
Lest you think me a hero, let me tell you I am not. We are scrutinized for our actions both good and bad. I was in a Dollar Tree store the other day and got upset and angry about not getting a printed receipt for a one-dollar item for a reimbursement. I don’t know why I was so upset or acted like such an idiot over a dollar. I guess the simple answer is pride, impatience, and a lack of conversion. An opportunity for Examen and repentance.
There is one action that haunts me from the day of the fire. There was a man who was probably homeless standing in front of Jack-in-the-Box across from St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church. Right after I said my prayer of protection over the church. He was standing there just looking at the sea of cars. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t ask for a ride, but I knew he wanted one. I could have let him in my car. I would have had to move “things” aside. Pam didn’t want me to let him in. I had previously promised Mike not to pick up strangers, which I have been known to do. Was obedience to my husband the higher choice, or did fear stop me from helping this man in need? I don’t know. His face comes to me sometimes since the fire. I hope he got out.
I am heartened to know that when the fire was getting very close, the police were opening cars and putting people in every available spot. There were pickup trucks with people riding in the back with no seats or seat belts, like when I was growing up.
We were blessed with helping others and being helped by others in the days and weeks following the fire. My mother and sister ended up in a shelter after the fire. Since my mother needs to be on oxygen 24 hours per day, and her health has been precarious, it was thought she should remain where there was medical supervision. However, this shelter started to have the norovirus spreading through it. Finally, my mother succumbed to the illness, and said, “Get me out of here.” She was put in a car just at the shelter curfew time of 10:00 pm with a little bucket as she got sick for the 90-minute drive to the closest motel room available. Ultimately, a week later, my mother had to be taken by ambulance to an Emergency Room due to dehydration due to the norovirus. After receiving a few liters by I.V., she was allowed to return “home” to her motel room in Redding.
Also, in the shelter were several parishioners of St. Thomas More. Mike and I were making daily visits after work to check on my mother and sister, and then visit with these parishioners as well. One 24-year-old woman was planning to leave on Monday, November 26th for Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to discern about joining an order of sisters there. This trip had been planned and the plane ticket for the five-day visit had been purchased back in January. We helped her over the next two weeks to make the plane and investigate this religious order. She is there now, and due to come home soon.
Some of the help we received included a place to stay in the small community of Vina about 20 minutes north of Chico. The first weekend after the fire I called my spiritual director who is a hermit, monk, and priest at the Abbey of New Clairvaux Monastery near there. Since I thought I would have no job and no house, I knew I would be free for a couple of days, and he was finishing up a book that I had been editing. I called him and said I would come and work on the book if he could arrange for me to stay near there for a couple of days. It turned out the monks were all on retreat that week, so the usual guest rooms were unavailable. However, there is a very generous couple who live in the town of Vina outside the monastery, and they have been putting us up ever since then. They are kind, patient, and wonderful. They are also the parents of an incredible priest in our diocese who is the pastor of a parish about an hour and a half away. We have been truly blessed to get to know this couple. The wife writes (paints) beautiful icons. Mike and I are blessed to be able to drive five minutes to the monastery and join the monks in daily Mass and Lauds as our schedule allows.
This story would not be complete without sharing about the incredible outpouring of generosity, help, patience, and kindness of the Chico community. Chico and the surrounding communities have a usual population of about 90,000. After the fire, this swelled by another 50%. Now traffic in the city was taking an incredible amount of time in some spots. The lines for food and services everywhere were much longer. I felt tempted to impatience dealing with this, and I was part of the problem of all of the people migrating down the hill from Paradise and Magalia. However, I have yet to hear any complaints from the Chico residents.
St. Thomas More parish was temporarily moved to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Chico. The pastor, staff, and parishioners could not have been more helpful. Then the offices were moved temporarily to the Newman Center, where there was again more help and support for the staff. Now the STM Office and services have been moved to another Chico parish, Our Divine Savior. Once again, their help and kindness could not have been better. We will have our first parish Mass since the fire this Sunday at 1 pm, celebrated by our pastor. This will be a weekly event from now on to help us maintain our parish identity – until we can be back at home in our church.
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church office, pastor, and I were all moved to the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico. The pastor, staff, and parishioners have been incredibly supportive and generous in helping us to get established and reach out to St. Nicks’ parishioners.
Both STM and St. Nicks’ have been working to contact all the parishioners to find out where they are now since the fire, how they are doing, and if they need any help. Incredibly, neither parish has had any reported deaths from the fire as of this writing. We are incredibly blessed! We continue to pray for those who have lost loved ones and for the souls of those who died that day.
A few more quick stories before I close. (Thank you so much, if you have persevered until now. God please bless you and decrease your Purgatory for this sacrifice.)
Mike and I went to the St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church the first week after the fire to remove items from the office so that we could do payroll for the employees. A Paradise Police Department Officer met us in an unmarked car at the Raley’s shopping center at the bottom of Skyway in Chico. He drove us up in this car to the church to get our items. He was a wonderful, kind, and respectful young man. He told us a couple of stories about the fire that really touched me. First, there was a Deputy Sheriff and a CHP officer surrounded by fire, and no way to get them out. So, another officer took a car and drove into the flames without being able to see them. The car caught fire, but they were all able to get out alive.
Then the officer told about his own experience with about 200 other people in Paradise. They were at Skyway and Clark where the construction is going on near the Optimo. Many people had been sent there from cars broken down, out of gas, people on foot, etc. This large group of people were on the cement pad, and they were completely surrounded by flames. They were breaking out windows on the new buildings and shoving people inside. This large group was saved only by a drop on them of fire retardant. Thanks be to God!
One of the doctors in the practice Mike works for as Manager of Finance and Accounting was involved in saving a woman from a burning ambulance. He and others went to a home that was burning and used hoses and spigots to save the home and the small group of people. There is more information available on this on Facebook and from KCRA.
Finally, a little information about a story that I want to know more about, but I haven’t been able to hear the details. My niece worked for a senior care home in Paradise. On the day of the fire, many of their staff left, and only a handful of employees, including my niece were left to help. I believe there were 70-90 residents in the facility. My niece and her co-workers got out all but a dozen of the residents. At the end there were no more transportation options, so she drove them out a couple at a time in her own car with her two teenage boys in the back seat. She went around road barriers, defied evacuation orders, and took each group out in turn. Each time she went back and got more, until the entire last dozen were out to safety. She is now working taking care of these residents at a facility up in Redding. To me, she is a real hero.
God is with us everywhere. Loving us, protecting us, watching over us. We are incredibly blessed! I thank God for my life. I am so grateful for my husband and my family. I am grateful that my home survived in Magalia. But that is just “stuff”. We can replace “stuff”. At Christmas time this year, hug your loved ones close and long. Treasure every moment you can with them. Presents are nice, but they are just “stuff”. Enjoy being with your loved ones, treasure every moment, and thank God for all your gifts!