PARADISE, Calif. — Among firefighters, it is what’s known as a career fire — the one you remember, the one you measure all other fires against.
For each firefighter who fought the walls of flames of California’s Camp Fire, this was that fire. Thousands of rescuers took on the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, which devoured 150,000 acres and killed more than 80 people before being contained.
“I remember seeing houses burn, and I kept asking ‘Hey, Captain, can we save that one? Can we save that one?’” said Christian Johnson, 22, a firefighter from Valley Springs, Calif. “And he kept saying, ‘No, that one is already gone.’”
On the front lines, where tongues of flame licked hundreds of feet into the air and victims fled down highways arched by fire, there were moments of heroism and fear, heartbreak and luck. For every disheartening loss, there was sometimes a moment of hope — the day after Firefighter Johnson watched helpless as the houses burned, his team saved a school.
Here are the firefighters in their own words.
‘It’s a war zone but not a war’
Jeff Edson, a Cal Fire fire captain in Butte County, where the Camp Fire began, was among the first firefighters dispatched that morning. He and a colleague drove to the town of Concow, just east of Paradise, blasting warnings through the truck’s built-in P.A. system, urging people to evacuate. Then they turned down Hoffman Road, a dead end.
We get down there and about halfway out, there was a woman standing on the side of the road, and she was taking a lot of heat from the fire, everything around her was on fire. We opened up the back door of the truck and she jumped in the truck. Down the road is a creek, it is the entrance for the creek into the Concow lake. There were four individuals that were running toward us, they were waving their hands and had burn marks on their shirts and jackets. ‘The road is blocked with power lines and trees, you can’t get out’ they said.
They were so hot and they took so much heat, they just ran and jumped into the water.
A crowd of evacuees in cars gathered behind them; Captain Edson encouraged people to stand neck deep in creek water, and 15 people followed his advice as the fire raged around them.
A firefighter in a specially designed bulldozer heard their distress calls over the radio, and arrived to plow through the burning trees and power lines and clear the way.
A couple of the pickup trucks that were with us, the tires were still on fire and the beds of the trucks were still on fire. I said, ‘We don’t have time to stop and put this out, you’re going to have to drive it.’ The bulldozer went out first, and then we had seven or eight of them in between the bulldozer and myself. I have been on a lot of fires where we have been losing houses, but I have never had anyone in the back of vehicles driving out while they’re on fire.
Captain Edson’s parents live in Paradise. He had warned them to get out, but for the next several hours, as he worked saving people from the blaze, he did not know that they had survived. He returned a day later to find their home had been destroyed.
It’s a war zone but not a war. It’s just total devastation. You sit there for a while and you definitely think about it, there are a lot of people that lost their lives. Whether it was luck or timing, any of those people could have been you.
‘I went into the fight mode’
Joe Chavez is a captain in the Butte County division of Cal Fire and a resident of Paradise. He was in his home there with his wife and three children the morning the fire broke out.
It was raining fire. I went into the fight mode because I’ve been doing this for 22 years. ‘We are going to take refuge in the structure, and let it pass by.’ The turning point was when my wife said, ‘Hey, we have a daughter who has asthma, and we have no power.’ The light switch went on in my brain. We had to leave. When we got in the vehicles it was pitch black, and as we were leaving we were being hit with that rain of fire on the way out.
Captain Chavez drove his family to Chico, a town about 11 miles away. Then he returned to Paradise to fight the fire — and try to save his house.
I took refuge inside the house as propane tanks were exploding and gas lines were erupting. It was almost like a war zone, you looked outside and everything was on fire. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t on fire.
That was very emotional, I called my wife and told her our home is gone, our home is gone. That has been the hardest. Two dogs got out, we lost our kitty cat. The hardest thing is just losing everything that you’ve had. We’ve been married for 15 years, we had a lot of memories in the home that we just didn’t have enough time to get.
After leaving his house, Captain Chavez found people frozen in fear on the street, staring at the flames. He gathered them in his pickup truck and drove them to safety. On the way out, they passed the bodies of people whom it was too late to save, in cars wholly burned. Captain Chavez has not worked since that day.
I have taken some time off to find a new home to live in, and to restart my life. Because the town that we once had is obliterated off the map, it is off the map.
Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is accept help from other people, because for so long I’ve been helping people, and now I am the one that needs help. It’s very hard to swallow that pill. We are used to helping people on their worst days ever. Now this is one of my worst days ever.
‘Your mind and your body is not really meant to see these things’
Capt. Osh Ahmad, from Freemont, is part of Cal Fire’s Urban Search and Rescue team, combing through what’s left.
I have been doing this a long time, and every time you see it, it gets harder and harder. It’s such devastation here. ‘Indescribable’ is the word I have been using. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see what transpired here, and to think about what people had to go through, and the last-minute decisions they had to make. Their family, their pets, everything, your entire life in one structure and a five-minute decision — that all weighs on you when you’re out there.
Many buildings are now little more than ash; cars scatter the roads, some melted, left at odd angles as residents fled on foot to escape, he said. His team has searched 2,200 structures so far. They have found no bodies.
Usually we are going in looking for people that are still alive or trapped, so going into this one, we knew that finding anybody alive was going to be virtually impossible, even though in the back of your mind you are hoping you find survivors, we knew that that was a slim chance. So you’re trying to change your programming a little bit, to where you’re finding closure for people who lost loved ones.
The emotional toll, Captain Ahmad said, is as large as the physical. Some crews can work up to 24-hour shifts, but the impact of sifting through so much devastation is more depleting than the hard physical labor.
The weight that sits on your shoulders with the task you have; the weight that weighs on your heart for the loss that you’ve seen, your mind and your body is not really meant to see these things all the time. You go through your career not wanting to ever see it, and unfortunately it happens, and when you do see it, it does take a toll.
You’ll carry it with you forever.