ANGWIN — As flames from the Camp Fire roared toward the town of Paradise the morning of Nov. 8, the students of Paradise Adventist Academy had just started school for the day.
By the time evacuation notices came, the fire had already reached the edge of town, and many of the students at PAA had time to grab only bare essentials, if anything at all.
Since then, life has been anything but ordinary. Many PAA students lost their homes and for the past three weeks have had little stability in their lives. A majority are still living out of suitcases while crashing on a friend’s couch or staying in a hotel.
But for the boys and girls basketball teams of PAA, life stabilized a bit this weekend. The Cougars made the trip to the small Seventh-day Adventist community in Angwin, tucked in the hills of the Napa Valley, for a basketball tournament on the campus of Pacific Union College. Even though the tournament only runs two days, simply playing basketball again and spending time with teammates, many of whom lost everything, has given these students a relief from the chaotic reality many of them now face.
“Us playing sports is like the one normal thing we have in our lives right now,” said Samantha Sayegh, a senior on the girls PAA team who lives in Chico and was evacuated but did not lose her home. “When you’re out on the court, you really aren’t thinking about anything other than the game. So it’s super nice to have that.”
But this break from reality almost didn’t happen. Officially, this tournament is hosted by PAA, but the event was initially canceled because the fire damaged the school’s campus.
Then PUC Prep, the K-12 school affiliated with Pacific Union College, called and volunteered to host the event and donate all concessions back to Paradise and PAA. On Friday, that plan two weeks in the making finally came to fruition.
“The amount of generosity and love that they’ve shown us is so overwhelming that it kind of balances out or even takes over the fact that we’re so sad about Paradise,” said Stacy Wisener, a sophomore at PAA who is currently living out of a friend’s pool house in Chico after she lost her home in the fire. “It’s overwhelming. It really is.”
‘It’s coming into town.’
Out of the six members of the PAA girls basketball team, half lost their homes. On the boys team, seven of the 12 lost theirs.
“(These last few weeks have) been a little chaotic, a little overwhelming at times but we’re glad we’re here,” said Jason Eyer, PAA director of athletics and head coach of both the boys and girls basketball teams. “It gives us an opportunity to take our minds off of what’s going on at home a little bit. It’s been a little rough, for some more than others, obviously. ”
Eyer, an alumnus of PUC, could see smoke rising in the distance as he drove to PAA the morning of Nov. 8. He, like many of the students, didn’t think much of it. Wildfires were not uncommon in the area, and many students have been evacuated multiple times in their lives.
It wasn’t until PAA was fully evacuated and Eyer was getting to ready to leave himself when the reality of the situation hit him.
“You could see the glow from the fire getting closer and closer,” he said. “I could hear propane tanks exploding a ways away still, but that’s when I realized this isn’t good; it’s coming into town.”
‘It was the sound – the roar of it – it’s deafening.’
The fire began east of Paradise and at its fastest, spread at the rate of a football field per second.
Shortly after PAA got its notice to evacuate, senior Carson Cummings headed to the east side of town to help a friend and his family evacuate. When he got there, his friend’s neighbor’s house was already ablaze.
“That’s when I realized how serious this was,” he said at PUC on Friday.
Cummings followed his friend’s family north on Pentz Road before getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. As he sat alone in his car, embers fell around him, igniting nearby trees and brush.
“I was on the phone with my brother and he was trying to calm me down, just because I was on my own,” he said. “At that point I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”
Cummings then called his dad, who happened to be working in Paradise that day. He told his son he would meet him at the K-Mart a mile away. Cummings was still stuck in traffic so his dad gave him simple but urgent directions: run.
Cummings abandoned his car on the side of the road as the trees on the opposite side of Pentz Road ignited. The wind whipped embers all around him as he made his way through the darkness of the smoke, guided only by the headlights of the cars still left on the road and the growing inferno around him.
“It was the sound – the roar of it – it’s deafening,” he said. “You could feel the warmth on your skin.”
He fought his way through the blackness with his jacket pressed over his face to shield himself from the smoke. Eventually, he met up with his dad, but the two fought more gridlock traffic as thousands of people tried to flee the unrelenting blaze. Cummings estimated it took them three and a half hours to travel the four miles to the city limits.
But even then, they were not safe. They were diverted south to Neal Road, one of the only other viable exits out of town. Once again, they got stuck in traffic, but this time the pace was slower, and the fire was again suddenly gaining on them. They abandoned their car and took off by foot, stopping only to cram into the backseat of a stranger’s car. The stranger gave them a ride all the way to Chico where they reunited with the rest of their family.
Cumming’s mother only had time to grab the family’s pets, a computer and a few photo albums. Everything else is gone.
“Everything I’m wearing right now is new,” he said on Friday.
‘Just total destruction’
Gene Keller, a realtor and retired volunteer firefighter whose son plays for Paradise Adventist Academy, has experienced his fair share of fires, but nothing compared to what he saw that day.
“People talk about forest fires, that’s one thing,” he said on Friday with a shaky voice. “But you hear comments of a fire storm where everything is just out of control, where fire is just going every which way and doing its own thing. Just total destruction. That’s what this was.”
Keller and his family got out of Paradise before their area was given the order to evacuate. He had been tipped off by a friend in the Sheriff’s Department that they needed to leave – now.
“Just the chaos and panic of everybody,” he said, “it was just surreal.”
Keller can only assume his house is gone. He hasn’t been back since they evacuated and he and his family have spent the last few weeks staying with relatives.
He does know, however, that one of his agents at his realty business, Paula Dodge, did not make it out of Paradise. Keller said Dodge and her husband’s bodies were found on their property.
“That’s the biggest thing that hurts,” Keller said. “Everything else I can rebuild.”
‘I’ve lost, but I haven’t lost.’
The Paradise Post reported on Friday that the city hopes to reopen parts of the town to residents starting next week.
Keller said he wants to rebuild, but also said that his son, Josh, will be at the forefront of his thinking about whatever he decides.
“It is what it is,” Keller said. “You can sit here and feel sorry for yourself or you can wake up the next day and say ‘OK, what do I need to do?’ And like I said, I have everything that really is important to me.
“I’ve lost, but I haven’t lost.”
While the recovery and rebuilding efforts may take years, the Paradise Adventist Academy community took small steps this week. They had their first classes since the fire on Monday at an Adventist school in Chico, and on Tuesday they played their first basketball game of the season before travelling to Angwin for this weekend’s tournament.
Keller pointed to Eyer as another stabilizing factor in the student’s lives. With so much turmoil, it would have been simpler to just cancel the tournament entirely. Adding another 100-plus miles of travel to already weary minds could do more harm than good.
But Eyer made his decision because of what he felt sports could offer his kids: a distraction from all the horror they’ve endured.
“I just try to tell them, as their coach, that we can at least forget about that stuff while we’re doing this in the hour and a half, two hours that we have practice. The time that we have games; this should be a chance for us to escape from those things outside of it,” Eyer said on Friday. “The basketball time has really been a good time to forget about that stuff that has to be done. Especially for them, figuring out ‘where am I going to go tonight? What are we having for dinner tonight?’ all those things.
“Hopefully this is a reprieve from all of that. ... It’s bringing people together as a team and allowing an opportunity for us to be together as a family.”