“You should look at the smoke behind your house,” my neighbor said while pointing. “You really should look.”
After a restless night’s sleep, I had woken up tired. My usually cheerful fifteen year old Sophia, who considered herself our “only child” now that her sister had left for college, woke up too late for breakfast, hated her outfit, and couldn’t find her shoes. She was frustrated, in tears, and I felt waves of impatience roll through me.
The carpool arrived and I walked Sophia out, greeting my neighbor through the car window. After they pulled out, I looked where she had pointed. In the clear, crisp November blue sky, an ominous plume of black smoke was spreading to the south. The sun peeked through, a glowing orb of eerie orange.
“Uh-oh,” I thought dashing into the house to tell my husband Adam and hop on the computer for information. At 8 a.m., the fire was in the Feather River Canyon, covering 200 acres, but strong winds and bone-dry conditions were a notable concern. Soon, my neighbors and I were collected on the street, snapping photos of the growing black cloud.
At 9 a.m., I arrived at the clinic where I am a nurse practitioner. The line-like plume of smoke had taken over a quarter of the sky to the south and east. Black, black clouds of smoke. The clinic was eerily quiet as many patients were no-shows. I scrolled through Twitter and Facebook, glued to the news-feeds, as it became clear that the fire had explosively grown.
The fire now was covering two thousand acres and starting to burn down Paradise. The entire town of 26,000 people was under an evacuation order. I texted the tenant in our Paradise house. “Paradise is evacuated! You out? You safe?”
“Yes, I am already at work in Chico. My sons are grabbing stuff from the house and are on their way,” the tenant replied.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Paradise had been our home for six years. It is just twelve miles east of our current hometown of Chico.We bought our first house in Paradise, a tiny but charming two bedroom home on a third of an acre with a giant fig tree, stately cedars, lush lawns, and large swaths of eighty-year old camellia bushes that bloomed for months on end. In Paradise, we lived on Poppy Lane, and the sign leading up to our house read: May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.
And, it was for the golden years of my girls’ childhoods. Sophia was conceived there in a silly rushed before-work way because we finally owned a house so it seemed time for a sibling for Clarabel. Sophia was also born on Poppy Lane, at 4 a.m. on the living room floor after a hurricane-force three-hour labor. We buried her placenta under the massive fig tree in our yard, which we felt rooted Sophia forever in this beautiful place.
I gardened on the Poppy Lane land with devotion, tending the gorgeous camellias. The girls learned to ride their bikes in the cul-de-sac, where deer would come in the evening. The Holiday Market was around the corner and across the street. I would put Sophia in the stroller, shop, and load my purchases into the bottom of her stroller to walk back home.
The day I forgot my wallet, the manager let me take my groceries home anyway and come back later to pay. Sometimes, I would see deer strolling through the Jack in the Box drive-thru on the corner. This was Paradise. Eventually, our jobs and the locations of the kids’ charter schools, pulled us to move “down the hill” to the college town of Chico. We kept that little house as a rental, too in love to part with it.
“Haaaaay Mom! I’m scaaaared!” Sophia texted me a little after 9 a.m. At Sophia’s artsy charter high school a quarter of the kids enrolled lived in Paradise. I looked out the window and saw black clouds now covering half the sky.
Later Sophia would tell me that at 9 a.m. the school announced that Paradise was being evacuated so Paradise kids should meet in the courtyard and prepare to be picked up and taken home to get their things. Forty-five minutes later, the school announced that no one was able to go up to Paradise now. The evacuated students would stay put.
These teens had only the clothes on their backs. Beloved pets and possessions could not be retrieved. A massive wailing and crying overcame the kids as their Chico-dwelling friends tried to comfort them, unsure what to do in this situation.
At 11 a.m., Sophia texted.“Mom! I’m freaking oooooooout. Everyone’s crying. The sky is crazyyyyy looking.”
Patients continued to trickle in for appointments, pulling me from my phone again. IUD insert, infection check, chlamydia treatment.
Around noon, I began seeing the status updates on social media from many of our friends who lived in lush Concow, nestled in the foothills.
“I’m alive, the kids are with me. The mountain was burning behind me as I drove.”
“We are here, but our house is gone.”
“We had to leave our burning truck but fortunately got picked up. We waited in a meadow while everything burned around us. This is the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.”
“Everything is gone.”
My hands started shaking at the computer while sending prescriptions for birth control to the pharmacy.
By 2 p.m., the sky was completely black. News from Paradise was apocalyptic. It took three, four, five hours to get down the ten mile hill. People had left their lovingly packed and now burning cars, babies in their arms, running for their lives. The high school, gone. The hospital, gone. The Kmart, gone. Reports now indicated the entire town of Paradise had burned.
Finally released from work at 7 p.m., I went home to Sophia. I cancelled a family gathering I was slated to host in two days . We moved it north to my parents’ home in Oregon. While rearranging the details on the family gathering, I saw on the Butte County Sheriff’s Twitter Feed that parts of South Chico were being evacuated, only a mile or so away. The fire was roaring down the mountain directly towards us.
Friends messaged me, “Dena! Don’t wait for the evacuation order! Pack now and leave when it’s still a warning to avoid being stuck in gridlock getting out!”
I emailed my sister a shopping list for the Oregon weekend: pinot noir, brie, olives, at least two types of crackers, whole milk for Sophia. Then, I found a bin and started packing for evacuation. I tried to think of what to pack and drew a bottomless white blank. I pulled out old photo albums and journals, the advanced reader copies of my forthcoming book, the papers off my desk. I grabbed my favorite quilt. I dug out the box with the house title and deeds, and threw in our passports and birth certificates too.
Then I remembered Sophia, chilling in her room after her surreal and terrifying day. I weighed my options– Sophia is very attached to her room and her things. She has a hard time letting go of stuff. I remembered helping her clean out her room when she was nine, when she wouldn’t let go of tiny clothes that no longer fit her.
“I want to keep those,” She had told me in her squeaky voice. “I’ll take them to college with me in case I give birth to a daughter there!”
I didn’t want to worry her by telling her to pack. But, if I didn’t let her pack and we DID have to go. . .
I brought two carry-on suitcases to her and told her in the most gentle, offhanded way I could muster, to pack just these two small cases with her absolutely most precious thing just in case. A half hour later she came downstairs with a dozen bags, and nearly all of her entire room packed into them. Then, she brought down the 50 gallon tank I recently had bought for her hamster Mr. Wiggles after months of her begging. “No way would I leave this!” She announced.
Adam finally arrived home from work and we loaded everything into his van, and then waited and watched. A couple more areas of Chico were evacuated, but not ours. I suddenly felt my utter exhaustion. It was 11 p.m. and I could not face actually driving off into the choking smoke to find some random place to sleep. Adam set up a text alert system for evacuation orders. We locked up the van and went to bed.
In the morning, we heard the firefighters worked all night to keep the fire from penetrating Chico. The Camp Fire had exploded to 90,000 acres in one day, and was only 5% contained. The 5% was the line which kept the fire out of Chico.
Paradise was completely gone, but it would be days until we would see proof that our Poppy Lane home was a pile of ashes. Outside, the day was as dark as midnight. The sky was a dome of glowing burgundy. It looked like nuclear winter had arrived in our town. I could see a pale strip of blue sky on the northern horizon toward Oregon, and my family. Ash was falling like snow. I woke Sophia up as calmly as I could, told her she needed to get in the car now.
“It looks like the Upside-Down in Stranger Things out here,” she observed as she followed me outside.
Adam stayed behind to help and make sure the fire-line outside Chico stayed secure. Sophia and I held hands for a brief moment and focused on our gratitude that Chico had been spared, that we still had our home. Waves of anxiety roiled through my body. I pointed the car north and with steady hands drove us through the midnight-dark streets and away from our house now covered in ash and soot. I looked only forward, towards the promise that lay in a thin strip of pale blue sky at the edge of the horizon.
Dena Moes is a Hollywood born, Yale educated midwife with a BA in literature and an MS in Nursing. Dena is a songwriter, essayist, and the author of The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal, forthcoming in April 2019. Her book is a memoir of adventure, motherhood, and love, woven into a spiritual journey. As a nurse-midwife Dena has provided compassionate healthcare to women, mothers, and babies for twenty years. Learn more about Dena , and order the book, at www.denamoes.com