Camp Fire Devastation on The Ridge – Paradise & Magalia, California
On November 8th at 6:30am a fire started near Pulga, CA in the Campfire Creek area. The winds were heavy the entire night before and gusting at 60+mph. By 8am the fire reached the town of Paradise, part of a community known as “The Ridge”, where we have called home since October of 2003. By 10:45am the fire had engulfed 20,000 acres and was rapidly burning the entire eastern area of Paradise and moving quickly west driven by the heavy winds. By late afternoon the entire Paradise area was virtually destroyed, up to 10,000 structures completely destroyed. The winds slowed down in the afternoon and then burned available fuel in all directions and moved into the Magalia area, where we live.
This disaster effected our family greatly even though we consider ourselves extremely fortunate. This video is a memorial of this event and how it affected our family.
First, let me take 90 seconds to go back and tell you how we got here from the Los Angeles area. My parents didn’t have the greatest start, they were married at 16 and I came along a few months later, and my brother, Danny, 2 years after that. My parents struggled to keep our family together and my father struggled with alcohol and violence, and was not around much. When I was 12 yrs old and when it seemed our family would not stay in tact, my father went to jail, found God, quit drinking, asked for forgiveness and turned his life around all in the same week. From that point, our father became our dad. He sold some possessions to buy a boat so we could spend time camping and going to the lake. This was the start of my love of the lake, and the outdoors. We visited many lakes and when I was 14 we went on vacation to Lake Shasta in Northern California. From that day forward, I always dreamed of someday living in Northern California and living near one of the many amazing lakes in the area. My dad also had the same dream.
I was married at 20 and started my family quickly. 10 years later I started my own business and worked hard but just didn’t feel like I could spend enough quality time with my family, especially on the lake which we loved. In 2003, due to the housing bubble, we had the opportunity to sell our nice home in Simi Valley for much more than it was worth and found our way to the “The Ridge” and settled in this beautiful little house in the Paradise Pines. We went to Lake Oroville 3 times a week when it was warm, and this was the life I had always dreamed of, yet I felt guilty. This was also the life my dad had always dreamed of, and he also dreamed of coming to a place like this and taking in as many neglected children that he and my mom could handle. I called him often to tell him this is where he needed to be and helped him find a place with some land where he could start his dream, and take in all those kids. They moved up within a year and immediately began the process to take in those kids, and they ended up adopting 10 kids over the next few years. We loved our house in the Pines but in 2010 had the opportunity to move to the North Coutolenc area on this beautiful 26 acre ranch. We were still just 5 miles from my parents home on South Coutolenc.
The day of the Fire
There were 2 unusual things about the morning of the fire. The first was that the rains were late. The rainy season around here starts on November 1, and you can usually count on that. The second was that I didn’t get much sleep because the wind was howling overnight, it was rattling the house. Our house is sheltered by the natural topography and the trees and we usually don’t feel the wind unless it’s very strong. Due to these 2 circumstances we had received warnings over the previous few days that PG&E may cut power to us due to high winds and fire danger so we had filled up all of our gas containers and tested our generators.
I had a meeting at 6am and by 7am Amy already saw the smoke while feeding the animals and checked the calfire website for any notices, there were none yet. Amy always fears the worst, and the smoke looked bad and she warned me to be prepared to evacuate. By 9am the smoke plume was immense, but we smelled nothing because the winds were blowing the fire away, south and east. By 9:30 am we lost power and heard of people evacuating from Paradise. At 9:45am we lost all communications along with the power and we started to see people evacuating with trucks and trailers hastily filled with belongings going by our gate down the road. That is an ominous sign because if people are using Coutolenc Rd to evacuate it means that they can’t go down the hill, and they can’t go up the hill over the Magalia reservoir bridge. I told RJ and Emmy to start packing and everyone was starting to get very nervous. We had some work being done on our house and the worker, Clay, lived in Paradise and his family was there and along with Amy were starting to panic a bit that we needed to evacuate immediately. They had good reason, from where we stood it looked like the fire was upon us and we had to go. I had a problem.
My parents had left for out of town for a seminar in Canada and we were supposed to pick up and be responsible for several of their teenage kids. They lived 5 miles down the road directly between us and Paradise. Amy had told them to all get to our house, the entire houseful of kids and my sister’s young family that live in Magalia in the Paradise Pines. They started to arrive around 9:45am but they were not all on our property and I couldn’t leave them. We had no communication and no way of knowing how close the danger was, and from what we could see of the smoke, the fire was moving fast and growing quickly. I got the idea to put my drone in the air so I could see exactly where the fire was and figure out what to do. The good news was that it seemed like the fire was in Paradise. The bad news is that it looked like the entire town of Paradise was completely engulfed in fire. How could that be? The fire seemed far enough away for us to wait, but we sent Emmy and RJ on their way.
My sister that lived in Magalia and her family were now safe on our property and so were several of the kids, but we were missing 4 of them, ages 17-14, 3 boys and a girl, one of them severely delayed. They were supposed to be in school in Paradise that morning and I had to find a way to make sure they were safe before I could leave, because my parents were in the air flying to Canada and they would feel like they needed to get back home, up the hill, but they should go to Chico and just wait.
I drove down Coutolenc towards Paradise to see if I could find a signal and make contact. There is a tiny section of road near the border of paradise where you can pick up a cell signal from Chico. There were several people there and the sheriff had setup a road block on the corner of Coutolenc and Skyway. I called my Dad, he was on a layover and already heard what was going on. He said he had contact with the 4 missing kids and was going to tell them to go to Chico, and we set a place to meet when we did evacuate. My Dad was nervous and he asked me, “how bad is it? Should we turn right around?” I told him that this was worse than anything I have ever seen, I think Paradise is completely on fire, but there isn’t anything you can do. I will get everyone out the best I can. I told him I would come back to the signal in an hour or so to make sure the kids got the message and told him we were using my drone to watch the fire.
Around noon I went to the signal spot, and before I could call my Dad I was pulled over by someone asking for help looking for his 16 year old son. His son was at the Fasttrip gas station just a few thousand feet past the road block and told his dad that he had to run from his car that burst into flames and was going to try to walk to where we were. He lost contact, and couldn’t get past the roadblock. The roadblock was not just a sheriff, there were flames, and downed power lines, and thick acrid smoke. It was apocalyptic. I called my Dad and got some bad news. He told the kids to go to a restaurant in Chico and just wait for us to meet, but for some reason they tried to come up the hill and they were able to call from across the street from the same fast trip. They were trapped.
I went to the sheriff’s officer at the road block and told them my brothers and sister were stuck just a few thousand feet away and we needed to get them. She explained that there were many people in that spot, and there were fireman and police there sheltering in place with the trapped people. They were all trapped, and no one was going in or out. I called my dad and gave him the news and told him to pray, I would do the best I can.
A couple of hours later, I was at the roadblock and signal spot again and I still couldn’t get through, and they said the people were all still trapped. I still felt ok not evacuating yet, and I needed to make sure these kids got out. I kept coming back, and I kept flying my drone. Later in the afternoon, around 4pm I came down again and it was much worse. The smoke was thinking and the flames were starting to drive down the canyon up Coutolenc, the southeasterly winds had slowed way down and now the fire was just burning fuel in every direction. When I talked to the sheriff she had tears in her eyes and told me to hope for the best. She pointed out some help had arrived and I saw a blackhawk helicopter just like this one pulling water from the Magalia reservoir maybe a thousand feet away from me or so and then dumping water on the area the kids were being sheltered. The helicopter was going back and forth as fast as it could dumping water. I was grateful, but I felt very helpless to not be able to get at the kids and I also had to call my Dad. I told him what was going on, and spoke to him man to man, that this seemed like it may not end well, and we can only pray. I told him I still wouldn’t leave as long as possible, without putting the rest of the family in danger.
I came down just after dark and it was a like a scene from Apocolypse now. The sheriff and roadblock were gone, there was no need, flames were everywhere and the entire Old Magalia area and into the Pines had been ravaged by fire and were still burning, flames on both sides of the road. I could not get down to the spot where I knew they were sheltered in place due to fire and power lines across the road. My hands were shaking as I called my Dad. When he picked up, he had good news. The kids and other trapped people were stuck with the fireman and police in that spot for over 9 hours but they were finally able to get down the hill. Thank God. I spoke to some fireman resting, and one of them was from Paradise. He looked at me with sweaty eyes and told me that “Paradise was gone, its all gone”. I asked them if they thought this fire in the canyon was likely to burn all the way to my house. There were no firemen working those flames at the moment and there was no wind and it was moving slow. They didn’t know.
It was dark now and the road over the mountain to evacuate is an adventure during the day, but can be very treacherous in the weather or at night. Add to that that I had 5 cars of people and animals and 3 very inexperienced drivers. One didn’t even have their license yet. I went back again to check on RJ and my brothers and sisters. The brothers and sisters were now lost somewhere in Oroville and I called RJ to get them somewhere safe, I now had to worry about those I was responsible for on my property. Everything was prepared and the cars were all ready to go. I set my alarm for 2am and was going to check the location of the fire and try to leave at first light. I didn’t want to make this trip at night, and over a mountain road with many people with big trailers and old cars trying to get over.
I woke up at 2am and saw a truck with flashing lights going up and down Coutolenc. I jumped in my truck and tracked him down. It was the forest service and they told me that I needed to knock on any doors that I know of if anyone is still at home, and get out. The fire was now no more than a mile down the road and had burned all of the homes on Coutolenc up to that point, which includes my parents home. I couldn’t fly my drone, but I could also see the red glow of flames directly to the east of us behind our property which was a very ominous sign. I wasn’t able to wait to first light, and so I had to make a rough decision. I felt like I needed to focus on getting these kids and other family safely evacuated to Chico, and I wasn’t going to be able to tow a trailer. That meant I had to leave the animals, 3 goats and Waffles the donkey. We put them in the paddock where they had a lot of room around them without fuel and I knew that to give them a fighting chance, I had to leave our guardian dog with them, our beloved Mastiff Zoe. Of course Zoe is a pet, but when you live on a small ranch like this, animals like Zoe are more than pets, they have a job. Tonight I was going to ask Zoe to do her job and I may not see her again.
I got 5 walkie talkies talked to everyone about exactly what we were going to do, and what to do if there was a problem, made sure my rifle was ready to go and we hit the road. The road from Sterling City to Inskip is one lane and a drop off on one side, but everyone did well and I called out on the walkie talkies every few mins.
This is the part where I sing praise to our first responders. We evacuated smoothly through that rough road, because they were there in force. They were keeping people safe, keeping cars off the road if they couldn’t make it, and sometimes just parked and sleeping on the side of the road ready to go at a moments notice. Throughout this entire catastrophe, over this entire month, I have been proud of our first responders and have nothing bad to say, but when I was leading all of these people over the mountain at 2:30am, I can’t tell you how thankful I was for our professional first responders. And remember that many of them have lost their homes.
We made it out and I was able to call my Dad and he was now back in Oroville and so he was able to talk to all of his family and take responsibility for them. Everyone was safe. I now could focus on finding a place to stay and figure out how to rescue my animals, which was not as easy as I hoped it would be.
We had given the animals extra food but watching the news and the satellite fire detection maps, the fire was very close and getting closer. We needed to get our animals rescued. We tried ourselves to no avail and then contacted several licensed animal rescue organizations and they tried but couldn’t get through. Three days later on Sunday we were nervous that the animals were not going to make it. We were definitely more worried about our animals than our property. On Sunday we got word from a wakesurf friend that saw our plight on facebook. Dan Savageau was able to get permission and came up with a stock trailer and he was able to pick up RJ and Emmy to try to get our animals. They drove through the carnage and listen to Emmy’s voice as she is nervous if the animals had made it. They were safe! All of the animals were accounted for thank you to our son in law’s family, the Huskey, for taking in our animals during the evacuation.
We were able to take advantage of my daughter and son in law’s Air BNB rental in Chico. It was a small self contained one bedroom apartment for Amy, Jessie and I, and 3 dogs and our crazy barn cat. It was a bit crowded but we made it home. Perfectly fine for up to a week, but after 3 weeks I was losing my mind. We gained access to our property even though we still didn’t have full services. We found our property unscathed and we felt very thankful, our entire neighborhood was spared. I also found that my parents house was spared! Their area and a few neighbors lost their homes, but their house was ok, however my Dad had built a large workshop to teach the kids vocational skills, and it was burned to the ground.
We removed our refrigerator and freezer to be dumped due to too long without power. It was Sunday and I had some time and I put up my drone. I first put the drone up around our home and found the fire did come within about 2000 feet of our house by fortunately we are bordered by Paradise Lake on the south, and then natural canyons and logging roads to the east. Those barriers saved our neighborhood, but the entire south Coutolenc area was mostly destroyed. The rains had finally started 13 days after the fire started and it was a beautiful clear day so I jumped in my Mustang with Jessie and my drone to see how far I could get into town and see what services we had and survey the damage. I was not prepared for what I found. Of course I knew that almost 100 peopled died in the area and over 90% of the structures in Paradise were gone, and about half of the homes in Magalia. Knowing these details, and seeing them reported on TV doesn’t prepare you for seeing it first hand. Homes were reduced to concrete foundations and ash. Cars were melted to the road. I put my drone up to see how extensive the damage was. Some of the few commercial buildings were ok, but TruValue and Dolly’Os was gone. At least half of Paradise Pines, where we lived for 7 years and all of Old Magalia was complete destruction. Except for the standing burnt trees and a few unscathed structures, it was like a nuclear blast went off.
I could see where my brothers and sisters were sheltered and how close I was to them, yet could do nothing. Over the next week or so I was able to fly my drone in several areas and was able to see the devastation up close, it was heartbreaking. This has been my home for the last 15 years and where I have chosen to raise my kids, I have adopted this community as my home and it felt like the loss of a family member.
Here in central paradise is where my friend Dennis has his PBs Propeller shop and its gone. However, I had the opportunity in July to make a video for him and I used my drone so I have the before and after.
Remember this beautiful little house that we moved into in 2003? So many great memories here, like the time Jessie was practicing her ollies and 180s on the porch. There were the family pictures, and then the time RJ made a ramp in our yard to jump with his bike, and convinced his little brother and sister they could do it also. I flew over the neighborhood in the Paradise Pines on West Park Dr . and like so many other areas in Magalia and Paradise, it was near complete devastation. It was very sad to see and think of all those memories burned to ash. Within about a week I was able to get into the area and see it up close and again, I was not prepared. There were so many deer wondering confused through the area, it was a strange sight, it was like they had no fear of me, which is not normal, and they didn’t know what to do. When I got to our old house, I got out of the car and stood at the drive way, and I have to say I cried like a little baby. Not just for the memories we had here, but it just put into perspective the impact this fire has had on this community, to see this, turn to this. I completely understood all the burned down homes I had passed by in the recent weeks with people just standing there, staring. I had some understanding of that. Several folks from our wakesurf community lost their homes, like the Clements and the Perkins families. I am sure there are several more since just about anyone from Paradise lost their homes.
I did find one tremendous bright spot in my surveying. When I watched the news and looked at the satellite infrared fire detection images of the area, it looked like our marina was completely engulfed in the fire. But when I put my drone up and surveyed the marina, it looks perfectly in tact! We are so happy about this because it means that we can continue our favorite past time while the community recovers. I don’t think I have ever looked forward to wakesurfing in the spring like I am now. I can’t wait to take another trip to Tennessee and bring back a new Supra to Lake Oroville. I am sure it may be a bit smaller, but the wakesurf community on Lake Oroville will continue to thrive and we will be right here doing our part to support it. I don’t know how its going to work without any hotels, but somehow, the Polar Bear event has to return to Lake Oroville.
We are Staying
My family has decided that we are not going anywhere. As I went back home to Chico taking the route over the top of the mountain I took a minute to enjoy the beauty of the area. It was these mountain roads that Amy and I explored on a motorcycle in 1999 that bought us here. It was still gorgeous. So at the summit of the mountain, around humbug summit, I put up my drone again. From here, the damage from the fire seems so far away, so small. I don’t want to minimize the pain or suffering some families may have fared in this tragedy, I knew we have been very fortunate. But seeing this beauty and this perspective I realized that the area will restore. While the fire may have been the harbinger of utter destruction, it also is the catalyst for renewal. I stopped at the creek in Butte Meadows. I remembered the colors I saw for the first time on the elephant ears in 1999, then, I thought, I wish I could move here and raise my family some day. I was able to realize that dream and nothing has changed. My family has decided to stay, we have the means to leave this area and start over somewhere else, but like I said, this area has become a part of my famly and this ranch is where I want to retire with my wife. It is going to be very inconvenient for a while but the rest of the community needs our help and we are committed to doing what we can. We are excited to see how Paradise and Magalia, otherwise known as “The Ridge”, will be restored beyond its former glory. I wan’t a first row seat, and I want a hand in its restoration.