It was about 6:30 am on Thursday, November 8th, 2018 when the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, ignited in a remote area near Pulga. Within 21 minutes the fire had spread to about ten acres. The flames soon accelerated to consume the equivalent of a football field every second, according to Cal Fire.
The fire burned more than 153,000 acres, killed at least 85 people, and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. With the town devastated in such a way, healing will take some time but Butte is indeed strong.
Getting Down the Hill
-Mike and Kitty
We spoke to retired couple Mike and Kitty Smith about their experience through this ordeal. In all the pain and loss, Mike and Kitty continued to express their gratitude for all the help given to them and to all their Paradise friends and neighbors.
It was 7:30 am when Tiffany Cathcart arrived at the home of her parents, Mike and Kitty in Paradise. Tiffany and Kitty saw smoke and Tiffany went to investigate. She was back within a half hour to report seeing the fire coming up the ridge; the family began alerting friends and other family members to get what they could from their homes and get out.
By 10:05 am Mike and Kitty were packed and ready to go. Wishing they had left when they first found out, they headed out on their usual route with dogs in tow, only to find bumper to bumper traffic. They quickly turned around and headed out the back way, taking Wagstaff to Skyway. Mike said when they first pulled out on the Skyway, the whole corner was on fire including a gas station, which had just started to burn. He said they got past that only to find that parts of their journey would take up to half an hour just to travel just a block. Portions of the road and houses on the sides of it were burning.
Throughout town, people who needed rides had been heading into the main roadways as good Samaritans stopped to pick them up. There were
many, many good Samaritans that day. Kitty emotionally described “the heroes”, (from the California Highway Patrol) who stood on the roadside directing traffic amid embers blowing in the wind and the heat of the fire closing in.
Mike said he had never witnessed such high winds in Paradise, which accelerated the fire at a rapid rate. He likened the experience to his time spent in Viet Nam and the effect of Napalm, which he said, “dropped and disintegrated everything in its path.” Frequent, loud explosions and flames further reminded Mike of his Nam experience, describing the whole thing as “really scary.” As they passed the iconic Paradise sign, Mike said, “It was on fire. Then it just collapsed right in front of us. It was like fireworks falling when the sign fell.”
The journey down the hill would be a long and slow one. They were motioned through parts of the road that were literally on fire. Kitty said in addition to the CHP officers who were dodging embers to direct traffic, regular guys had also jumped out of their cars to help bring order and direction to the masses that were now heading down both lanes of the Skyway. Their journey took three and a half very long hours, plenty of time to ponder all they had left behind and all of the friends and neighbors they prayed would be okay. When they got to the bottom of the hill, she said, “The road was wide open for us.” Local law enforcement agencies had all responded quickly. She said, “They had stopped all the traffic at the bottom of the hill and it was as if we were running into the open arms of Chico, who already knew we were coming.”
A Blanket of Love
Kitty said, “By the time Paradise got down that hill, Chico had it’s arms wide open. There were already signs telling you where to get fed.” Within a few days”, she said, “the town of Chico had completely taken care of the town of Paradise.” She described it as “Beauty for Ashes”, quoting from a Bible verse that encourages giving comfort to those that mourn.
And that is exactly what happened. Paradise residents’ needs were being met; from food and housing to clothes and toys. “There was information everywhere telling where you could go to get donations and what was being provided at each location. But it was much more than that.” Kitty said, “Everywhere you went, when people found out you were from Paradise they wanted to be sure you had a place to stay; did you need anything? People were being blessed left and right.”
The Smith family was especially blessed, and it was so appreciated. After the loss of their daughter Crystal and her fiancé John last February followed by the Camp Fire, which took their home, and both of their kids’ homes, they were chosen by Christmas in the Park, a group that provides a magical Christmas display each year in a San Jose park.
Thanks to them, Kitty, Mike, their son and daughter and their families, were swept away to San Jose. The Fairmont Hotel hosted accommodations. Kitty said, “It is something everyone could have really used at the time; we were blessed to receive it. My grandkids got to order room service at the Fairmont.” They had been invited to Christmas in the Park in Downtown San Jose, to be honored as special guests. They would be flipping the switch to light the Christmas tree for the ceremony.
All over Butte County, and from well beyond, people were giving from the heart. Businesses and organizations throughout Butte County were focused on the victims of the fire.
As we left the interview, I pondered how grateful each person I had met from Paradise was for getting out, and for what they now had regained, a place to live, even if in a row of RVs given space at the Silver Dollar Fairground in Chico.
Having lived on Castle Drive in Paradise for decades, Mike and Kitty now had all their closest neighbors from Castle Drive parked next to them in RVs. They were all helping each other, and even keeping spirits bright we noticed when introduced to their neighbor, Mike Reynolds. He responded with a big smile, “Yep, this is Castle City now, and I’m the mayor.”
Going Back In
Kitty said, when they were allowed to come back in and search the area of their home, it was tough. Everything was gone. Well, nearly everything. When Mike returned from Viet Nam, he bought a U.S. flag, which he has proudly displayed at every home they have ever lived at. It was on a pole, on a tire flying proudly in front of their home when the fire broke out. When they returned, they found the flagpole was gone; even the tire was burned. On the front porch laid folded the American flag he had carried through his life since Nam.
Likewise, Kitty almost immediately noticed what she felt was a sign meant for her. Ironically it was a sign. It was a special gift she had received from her late daughter Crystal many years prior. She said it was from that point when she began collecting signs that say “Believe”. When she walked up to what was once her home; amid the devastation felt, the words caught her eye. She said, “I could see every letter.” It was a large metal sign still standing by the fireplace, blaring, “BELIEVE”.
Their plans are to return to Paradise with their kids and their families, to start over in the town that captured their hearts decades ago.
Reference: “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. – Isaiah 61:3 KJV