BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
“I called my mom while we were being evacuated and I told her ‘Mama, I love you. The town is on fire and I don’t think we’re going to make it out,’” said my aunt Mary Gowins, who fled for her life, Nov. 8 as the deadliest fire in California history ravaged her town of Paradise.
The Northern California “Camp Fire” to date, has taken the lives of 86 people, burned 153 thousand acres, and completely decimated close to 19 thousand structures—most of which were homes, to include the home of my Aunt Mary and Uncle Eric Gowins.
For my family, it was truly an end-of-days scene as they, and thousands others, rushed in a frenzied panic to grab what they could and escape the flames.
“I was at work in Chico at 7:30 a.m. when I started getting calls from neighbors, coworkers, and then my husband about evacuating Paradise,” Aunt Mary said. “Around 8 a.m. my husband sent me a picture from Skyway Road and it looked like a volcano was erupting.”
She raced home and tried to remain calm so that she could coax her three cats and three dogs into carriers, then into the truck. When your life is at stake it can become very easy to leave behind animals, but the cats and dogs are just as much of a family to my aunt and uncle as any other relative.
“We left the house at 10:30 a.m. but it looked like midnight,” she said. “There was thick, black smoke and ash falling like snow. Huge charred debris and embers flew from everywhere. I could see a house down the street from ours catching and that is when we knew we were going to lose everything.”
Around this time, I could see the plume of smoke coming from the mountain. From my perspective on Beale, it looked like the mushroom cloud aftermath of an atomic bomb.
Mary recalled moving at a snail’s pace to try and get out of town and it fried her nerves, to say the least. They had sat in the traffic for over an hour when she felt an intense panic overwhelm her—she running out of gas.
In order to make sure they had enough fuel, the Gowins’ made a bold move and sped back to their home to quickly load into another, more fueled vehicle they had planned to leave behind.
It was at this time the neighbor Sylvia Broyles, 75, was going back to her home after trying to evacuate and being stuck in bottleneck traffic unable to escape.
“If Eric had not said ‘You’re getting in your car now or I’m picking you up and putting you in my truck,’ I would have died in my home,” Sylvia said. “I had already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to leave, so Eric is my hero.”
Silvia’s husband passed away 10 years ago and she couldn’t bear to part with the home they loved so dearly.
“Paradise was my home for 39 years,” Sylvia said. “It took me so long to even leave to evacuate because I was desperately looking to find a blue metal box. It had my wedding rings in it and my husband’s and my Army dog tags.”
According to Sylvia, the fire destroying her home felt like ripping open the scar of her husband’s death, and she was not ready to relive that pain. However, after Eric’s critical words, Sylvia agreed to flee and the Gowins’ stayed on her bumper to make sure she got out safely.
During their second attempt to escape, Mary called her mother to say goodbye.
“She was so strong,” Mary said. “She told me she had prayed for us and knew we would be coming home.”
Mary clung to her mother’s words for strength and stayed focused on getting out, even though the world around her seemed to be spiraling into chaos.
Sobbing, she reached for tissue while remembering the horror that surrounded her during the evacuation.
“There were explosions every few seconds, like we were in the middle of a war,” my aunt said. “We saw people crashing into one another, abandoning their cars with everything they could carry and running as fast as they could.”
Mary broke down thinking about the wildlife running alongside all those people trying to escape.
“It just encompassed us, circling, no matter which way you went,” she cried. “We couldn’t help them because we couldn’t help ourselves. I pray for all those people who weren’t able to get out.”
Sylvia confessed that her resounding thought was “This must be what hell looks like.”
Terrified but together, the Gowins’ and Sylvia made it to the nearby city of Chico, and it felt like a completely different world. Blue skies were overhead and the air was easy to breathe.
Countless evacuees flooded the surrounding cities seeking shelter, but they weren’t as fortunate as my aunt and uncle. They are lucky enough to be close to family and friends who can help. Others were forced to live in a sea of tents, in Butte County shelters, or find refuge in RVs or motels.
Oftentimes, disasters of this proportion will receive a huge outpour of support in the early weeks and die down as time passes. During the holiday season, many of us are able to spend time with our family and friends, but there are still many Camp Fire victims who remain homeless. Luckily, my family and their neighbor are not counted among them.
If you have the means or are interested in donating or volunteering, please reach out to local shelters and agencies that are already supporting to find ways you can help.