A personal account of a beloved great grandmother's evacuation during the Camp Fire. Credit: Sharon Hahn Darlin shared via Flickr Creative Commons

Leaving Paradise

By: Chief Michael D’Orazi, Ashland Fire & Rescue

Topic: Evacuation outreach/planning Wildfire

Type: Essay

Last October, I was visiting my mother, brother (Rick), and sister-in-law (Joanne), in Paradise, California. My mother, at the age of 98, had transitioned out of her home and into an independent living facility nearby, but still owned her home in town. Rick and Joanne lived in their own home, a few miles up from downtown, on Pentz Road. On a Saturday morning, I took my mom for a car ride. It was a beautiful fall day, but perhaps because of my experience in the fire service and my interaction with our department’s Fire Adapted Communities Program, all I could think about was risk. I took stock of all of the undergrowth, the vegetation abutting buildings, and the thick duff and pine needles covering the forest floor and rooftops alike.

Twelve days later, I was at my desk (at Ashland Fire & Rescue) when I received an early-morning phone call from Joanne. She frantically explained that there was a huge fire in the canyon and that she and Rick were evacuating. Rick would leave separately, though, and get our mom before leaving town.

Black sky and taillights during daytime evacuation

Credit: Joanne D’Orazi

Joanne sent me a few photos as she was driving which, at 8:30 a.m., displayed a sky as dark as night from smoke. All I could think to say was, “Get out now, and don’t look back!”

She continued down the road, but Rick was still in town. As he tried to get to Mom’s facility, he was told by the authorities that he could not proceed in that direction. Eventually, he was forced on an evacuation route, without making contact with Mom.

Both he and Joanne made it out safely, taking five hours to travel what normally is a 30-minute drive. However, they were in two different cities, Chico and Oroville, and wouldn’t see each other for two more days.

Meanwhile, I was trying to use my connections in the fire service to find out what happened to Mom.

After several nail-biting hours, I  discovered that the facility where she was living had successfully evacuated all of the residents and taken them to a safe location. A few phone calls later, I narrowed the facility’s intended destination to Sacramento, where they had sister facilities. After several more hours, I was finally able to hear Mom’s voice on the phone and know that she was safe and well cared for.

Although the uncertainty of not knowing where my 98-year-old mother was during the deadly Camp Fire was more than unnerving, I cannot find enough thanks and praises for the staff of her facility. The night before the Camp Fire started, Paradise was under a Red Flag warning, and the facility’s staff took heed.

They prepared their residents for evacuation before the fire even started, and made detailed plans for their transportation to a safe location in case the Red Flag warning manifested into an actual wildfire. Instead of scrambling to find transportation, being caught in traffic jams, and risking not finding the residents lodging and care if they were in fact able to get out in time, they made arrangements in advance and got their people, including my mom, out safely. Our family is extremely thankful for her safety and mourns for those who were not as fortunate.

Great grandmother and great granddaughter

Mom with one of her great grandchildren. Credit: Michael D’Orazi

There was hardly anything we could salvage from our family homes, except for memories. While those are certainly special, the destruction of all that they had physically cherished was indeed a difficult and raw emotional transition. Their possessions were gone, but we could still hold on to each other and that, in the face of all the trauma, is what really makes the difference.

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6 thoughts on “Leaving Paradise”

  1. Vicki Chase says:

    Thank you for this heartfelt story. I am so glad your mother was safe. As a local preparedness educator, I always emphasize the importance of being ready on red flag days. Glad to have a positive outcome story to add to my toolbox. Thank you

  2. Brett says:

    Thank you for sharing, Chief Michael D’Orazi. Im glad to hear the living facility took the red flag warnings seriously, had a plan in place, and followed through with it.

  3. kristen cook says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve recently become lead for our new Firewise Community in Nevada County, CA. One of our key messages is how we have to change our behaviors when there are Red Flag days. It does not mean be ready to get ready. It means BE READY NOW.

  4. Liz Davy says:

    Powerful

  5. Trish Cooper says:

    As a basically unprepared survivor of the Paradise Camp Fire, I am grateful my husband and I survived the hellish evacuation. We certainly learned that what we thought was prepared ness, was not. Not having leashes for all three dogs created extra havoc running down the Skyway after having to abandon our vehicles with the dog crates. Big lesson learned, please everyone take heed.

  6. Bob Betts says:

    This really underscores the Ready Set Go! program.

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