Apocalypse on the Ridge

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga
Anna Dise, 25, and her dogs, Luna (left) and Sirius, spent the first night of the Camp Fire dodging burning embers and the many blazes that enveloped much of Butte Creek Canyon. Her father, Gordon, did not make it out alive.
Anna Dise slammed her hand into her car’s steering wheel, crying out for her father, Gordon, as he ran into their blazing home in Butte Creek Canyon.

She tried desperately to get the car to start, but it was no use. Worse yet, she was running out of time and her dad wasn’t coming back out. One of the last things Dise saw before grabbing her two dogs and running for her life from the spreading Camp Fire was her childhood home’s kitchen disintegrating.

Dise called 911, but emergency personnel couldn’t get to her. To survive, she’d have to find a way to outwit the blaze. She found a ditch and hunkered down, using what little water it held to douse herself and her beloved pets, Luna and Sirius, as embers rained down on them.

Hours went by and Dise, terrified the flames would consume her, stayed on alert as she spent the night outside.

“I had to stay awake and watch which way the fires were moving, all the hot spots,” she said on Friday (Nov. 9) at Chico’s Neighborhood Church, one of several locations temporarily housing evacuees and others rescued from the deadly blaze that ignited the previous morning.

In the early morning light, under a blanket of smoke, Dise hiked back to her house. There, she found its charred, skeletal remains and the car “all melted down.” There was no sign of her father. “I don’t even think I saw my dad’s bones, but I know he was in there,” she said.

Inexplicably, a bag of family photos she’d abandoned was “untouched, no burns or anything.” That, along with her canine companions, provided some comfort.

“We lost everything except for each other,” she said.

Dise’s cellphone battery had died, so she walked to a neighbor’s house and waited for help to arrive. She heard chainsaws in the distance, the sound of Cal Fire personnel working their way through fallen trees on two-lane Honey Run Road, which leads into the secluded canyon, and was rescued around 7 a.m.

Dise’s harrowing story would be unfathomable were it not for the fact that so many other Butte County residents can relate to it. Indeed, tens of thousands of residents fled for their lives, as the Camp Fire bore down on the Paradise and Magalia ridge communities, as well as several surrounding hamlets, including Concow and Butte Creek Canyon.

The blaze started the morning of Nov. 8 along Camp Creek Road near the Poe Dam on the Feather River in Pulga, east of Paradise in the Plumas National Forest. The cause is still under investigation, but one of the primary questions is whether an issue with a nearby high-voltage power line is related. Already facing billions in lawsuits for allegedly sparking other California wildfires—including the Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties in October of last year—PG&E reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that an outage occurred just before the first calls of the Camp Fire came in to authorities.

It spread quickly in the parched foothills, pushed by low humidity and high winds that blew embers for miles, triggering fires throughout the region, including the outskirts of Chico. As of Tuesday, the firestorm had destroyed more than 7,000 structures, displacing upward of 52,000 residents, roughly 22 percent of Butte County’s population of 230,000. By then, it had consumed more than 125,000 acres and was 30 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

State officials have dubbed it the most destructive wildfire in California history. It’s also the deadliest. As of Wednesday evening (Nov. 14), the remains of 56 residents had been recovered, mostly from the Ridge communities, and more than 130 were listed as missing.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Up in Paradise (pictured) and Magalia, days after the fire tore through the region, the scene was otherworldly. In some areas, abandoned cars lined residential streets.

During several drive-throughs of the scorched foothill communities on Friday and over the weekend, the only signs of life were law enforcement personnel, including several out-of-area coroner’s units, utility and road workers, media folks and firefighters.

Among them on Saturday were Stephen Terry and Michelle Monnot, volunteer firefighters with the El Medio Fire Department in Oroville, who drew water into their tanker from the De Sabla Reservoir above Magalia. Functioning, as Terry said, like a “water buffalo,” they spent the day filling up fire trucks for crews mopping up hot spots. In decades of fighting fires, Monnot said, they’d never seen a blaze ravage an entire town the way the Camp Fire did.

Elsewhere on the Ridge, evidence of a chaotic evacuation remained.

Amid the gray, post-apocalyptic landscape, particularly in the residential portions of Paradise, streets leading to the few main arteries exiting to the valley below were strewn with vehicles. They were abandoned by occupants who’d been stopped in gridlock traffic and had no choice but to get out and try to outrun the fast-moving flames.

Some of the automobiles were so scorched, their make and model were unrecognizable. Only shells remained, and in some cases trails of melted aluminum oozed on the asphalt below. Several were crushed by collapsed power polls or trees. Still others appeared eerily unscathed.

James Betts witnessed the confusion and panic on the Ridge first-hand. Huddled with other evacuees at Neighborhood Church the day after escaping the flames, he described how quickly the fire moved through his Paradise neighborhood and how fortunate he was to make it out.

He, along with a friend and several family members, including his grandmother and nephew, were alerted to the fire by loud explosions. Outside they saw flames down the street and drivers backed up on the roadway, honking and yelling.

None in Betts’ group had a car.

“I was screaming at people, begging them, ‘Please stop,’” he said. “It was like Armageddon outside. It was nuts.”

A stranger driving a pickup truck finally pulled up and all of them, plus their animals, piled into the bed. “We’re so lucky, we really are,” Betts said. “I gave him the biggest hug in the world. I don’t even know his name.”

Betts was echoed by fellow Paradise evacuee Oscar Albretsen, an epileptic who also was without transportation. “I honestly thought I was going to burn to death,” he told the CN&R.

Rescue came in the form of his neighbors, who made room in their vehicle for Albretsen and his cat, Nibbler.

The scene he described on the downhill ride to Chico is surreal—a wall of fire on either side of the roadway dotted with charred deer carcasses, abandoned cars with pets inside, and homes burning or burned to the ground with only their chimneys intact.

Albretsen’s last glimpse of the landscape in no way resembled his hometown.

“It’s beautiful, and a town where people are so good to each other,” Albretsen said. “Now it’s starting to dawn on me: Everybody lost everything.”

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