Fire on the mountain, perfect storm hits my town

To borrow from Burns, I’ll say, the best laid plans of mice and moms often go awry.

Our oldest son was having a hard time finding an affordable place to live in Chico that wasn’t in a high crime area. We were selling the old rental where he lived in the “mother in law” unit because the neighborhood was becoming overrun with transients. Not only our son’s car but most of the neighbors cars had been broken into. The nearby shopping center had become a gathering place for panhandlers, shoplifters, thieves and just plain screaming weirdos.

The authorities are not only useless, they are a big part of the problem.

When he looked out and about in town, there was no where we could afford to buy or that he could afford to rent that wasn’t in a worse neighborhood.  One place that looked really cute on Craigslist turned up on the news a few nights later – the neighbor had an old RV in her side yard that was being broken into frequently by “campers”, who finally managed to light it on fire.

When you look at the local news or websites like Butte County Fires and Crimes Facebook, you are seeing the major decline in our town. Butte County Behavioral Health Department turned our town into Arkham Asylum. They bring the transients and mentally ill in from public agencies in other cities and counties, prisons and hospitals around the state – all the for $550/ day they get in “transfer funding.” They can hold these people without their own consent for 45 days – do the math.  BCBH director Dorian Kittrell told me a couple of years ago that the county gets about $63 million a year in such funding. 

When the 45 days is up they are turned out on the street, given directions to local shelters.

So, we gave up on finding a house in Chico and went looking in the nearby town of Paradise, just 15 minutes up The Skyway, one of the most impressive sections of road in California. We found the cost of housing there significantly cheaper, houses at least $100,000 less than they’d sell for in Chico. We bought a neat two bedroom in a groovy neighborhood and he moved in a year ago July. 

The next year went pretty well. He didn’t mind driving down to his job in Chico. He liked his neighbors, as he got to know them. He worked hard to clear the neglected yard around the house of the scrambling non-native blackberry and other fire hazards. He terraced the back yard, dug a ditch, and lined it with rocks to stop mud from building up on the back wall of the house.  He brought in plants recommended for soil retention and drought hardiness. He had mature cherry and plum trees. There was even a fruiting mulberry. The back yard was unrecognizable from what we’d bought. 

So, around the first of November he came over to borrow our leaf blower to clear the top of his house of tree debris and make sure the rain gutters were all clean. We’d told him a million times, cluttered rain gutters not only cause spot flooding and roof damage, but wads of dry needles in your rain gutters are a common fire hazard. He took the blower home on Monday, promising to bring it back on Thursday so my husband could clear our tenants’ roofs and gutters. 

Thursday, November 8, we woke up at our cabin in the hills to see smoke over Paradise, rolling down toward Chico. As we drove back to Chico the sky began to darken, heavy smoke blotted out the sun. We had no idea what was about to happen, but we were scared. 

We met our son at our house in Chico – the news was already out – Paradise was being evacuated. A fire that started miles away at Pulga Gap was burning out of control, pushed by the witch screaming winds that come out of the Feather River Canyon. 

PG&E reported the fire near their transmission towers in two different locations by 7am (some reports say they knew about the fires as early as 4:30am). But, Cal Fire had already called it a season. They make their decisions according to the calendar, not the conditions. There were no crews readily available, no planes. 

The Paradise Fire Department was left to evacuate anybody they could. As you’ve read, it was complete pandemonium. We heard it from our son’s girlfriend, who was pulled together enough to stop by his house and get his cats. She and her mother got their dogs and nothing else, but stopped at my son’s house to get the cats. I gotta hand it to her after what I’ve heard about both sides of the road on fire, etc. They did say it took them hours to get through to Chico, but they were in the first wave, and it wasn’t so bad. 

We were in denial, we thought the fire would be put out soon, the evacuation would end, and my son would just have to stay a night or two in our apartment. We set him up there, made sure he had food for a few days and some clean socks and underwear. But we didn’t want to stay – the apartment is too small for three grown-ups, and our pets were in immediate conflict. 

And the smoke was already sitting on Chico, the sun was blotted out, ash was floating everywhere, and people were already using masks. We hated to leave our kid behind, told him to keep the windows shut, and headed back to our shack in the hills. 

We have a generator, everything we need to set up for a few days running at the shack. You’re allowed to camp on your property here for 14 days in a 30 day period, and we do quite frequently. We can make it without internet or tv if we have to, although, we usually have those things anyway. I even have a crank radio, I can stand on a stump and get stations from all over Sacramento, Reno, Modesto, and beyond. 

What we weren’t ready for was forced evacuation. The cops and fire wanted to use our roads for staging, they didn’t want civilians getting in the way.  So late Thursday we were advised by sheriff’s officers to pack up. We loaded as much as we could in two vehicles and got ready to leave, but we ended up staying the night, watching the fire burn down the ridge miles from our shack, headed for Chico.

Friday morning November 9 we lost internet and phone completely. Worried that our kids were worried about us, we drove down the road to get to a service spot. We ran into the pandemonium of evacuees, it was insane. There were no law enforcement vehicles in sight, and we saw what we heard about later on the news – people panicking, hysterical, driving down the road on the wrong side, running others off the road, coming around blind turns at 50 mph. 

We drove back to the shack, afraid to get on the main road. When we left hours later, sensing a slow-down, we encountered stalled cars left alongside the road, their tail lights and other plastic melted off, covered with soot. We saw the remains of two bad accidents, cars just pushed out of the way and left. We still didn’t see any law enforcement. And just a few miles from town we fell under the black sky, the sun was gone, and the temperatures went from the 50’s to the 30’s over the course of a few miles.

After we got to town and checked our kids, we found out we would not be allowed back to our shack until further notice. We hunkered down with our son in the apartment, trying to be sensitive to everybody’s nerves.  We watched funny movies on our old DVD player, ate great meals, looked at photo albums.

We learned Southeast Chico was under an evacuation order, subdivisions that had been built into the hills were under threat. The winds had shifted, but not for long, that evacuation only lasted a day, but much of lower Butte Creek Canyon had burned. 

It wasn’t long before we heard the unbelievable – Paradise as we knew it, was gone. Hundreds of homes, including our son’s house, were nothing but ash and rubble.

Paradise was a ginchee little town. Since I was a child it’s been the kind of place you might drive an hour to have a cup of coffee, or a good meal at any one of a dozen old restaurants. Neat shops too. Great hardware store. Damned good taco wagon. Great museums. Now mostly gone. 

And 88 people, mostly over 60, dead. I just can’t express what I feel about that. Paradise has always been a retirement town, a shelter for old people who couldn’t afford to live in Chico anymore. I’d actually recommended my friend send his parents up there to buy a house!

So here we are, at Christmas, winter bearing down, with 22,000 very sad people added to our already depressed population. The public works department says traffic accidents are up almost 35 percent since evacuation. Long lines everywhere, roads shutting down with traffic by noon every day. Merry Middle Finger to You Too Buddy!

I was talking to a man at the post office, as I waited in line to claim a package the post office was not able to deliver. The line was long and people were getting pissed off.  We agreed – Chico is experiencing a perfect storm right now, just hanging on, waiting for an ending that might not be so happy.