There's Gold In Them Hills!
By Bob Van Camp (aka "Digger Bob")
I was awoken by my cell phone going off, signaling a text message. It was from my girlfriend who was at work near Chico. I looked at the curtained windows and saw that the dawn was a bit orange. "must have some cloud cover today and the sun is shining through them."
She said, : "Bob, there's a big fire just broken out to the East of you over in the Feather River canyon. There's a huge plume of smoke and it already has a name. "They're calling it the Camp Fire."
"Ha." I said. "That's pretty funny. A camp fire. Way over on Hwy 70? No problem, that's a long ways away."
"Well, the wind is blowing it your way. Looks pretty bad."
"Come on, it would have to cross two mountain ridges and the west branch of the river to get this far. They'll have it knocked down way before that. Well, keep me informed."
I proceeded to do my normal morning routine, coffee, shower, fee the cats. At some point I turned on the TV news and there was a brief blurb about a fire near Pulga. No big deal, just another fire. Then they went back to Jeopardy. I walked outside and saw a number of cars on Oliver, the main street going to the Skyway, more than normal. They were moving slowly so I asked one of the drivers what was going on.
"That fires getting bigger and heading this way. I'm not taking any chances like last time" he said.
More messages on the phone, girlfriend daughter, friends.
"This is looking bad, Bob. It's moving faster than they can keep up and wind is roaring it along right at you!"
By this time, the sky had darkened from orange to gray. There was no smoke near the ground, nor could i smell any. But the sky was beginning to look ominous. My neighbor across the street came out and we talked a bit.
"What do you think? Should we go too?"
I said, "I don't know. There's no way they are going to let this town burn. It's a small city, thousands of people and homes, spread out over miles. We should be hearing the air tankers by now."
But we didn't. No sound, no warnings, no alerts. Just the wind and idling cars on the street, which by now were almost not moving at all.
He said, "Well, I'd never make it all the way out anyway. I've got less than a quarter tank of gas in my truck."
I said, "No problem. I got a couple Jerry cans full. I can get you up to half a tank." So, I emptied about 5 gallons of gas into his truck. Mine was almost full, so I didn't need it. He thanked me, and that was the last time I ever saw him. I never knew if he made it out.
I called my buddy on the next street over.
"John, this is not looking good. What do you think? Should we go or stay?" He said, "I don't know, but I'm starting to pack the truck and trailer just in case we get a warning to evacuate."
Hmmm...what to do?
No new news from the people on the street, nothing new on the Internet or TV news, only by now they were "covering it" full time.
Text messages from friends and family were getting more urgent,
"Get out now! You can always come back!"
Now, the sky was almost black. It was getting really dark. The wind was howling through the tree tops, even though it was almost calm on the ground.
I got on my quad, ATV, and drove down to the end of the street. There was a flimsy wire fence separating my street from Johns. I brought my bolt cutters and got it out of the way. I rode over to John's house. He was busily packing his trailer and truck with stuff.
He said, "I don't know what's happening but I'm not taking any chances this time. We dodged the bullet a few years ago when that fire took out the lower part of town. They couldn't stop it then until it was too late. We may not be as lucky this time."
It was then that I recalled a "prophecy" conversation he and I had had a few months before.
He said, "Sooner or later, this town is going to burn. Look at all this vegetation, trees, brush. It's thick all over the town. A hodgepodge of streets and alleys with only ONE way out. The Skyway. You can only go two ways. Up to Magalia or down to Chico."
"There is only ONE road! If the worse happens, it's going to be clogged with cars at a standstill. No one moving until it's too late."
It was at this point I realized the potential circumstances we were in. He was right. Even if nothing came of this, we had to go now!
We could always come back and resume our lives as if nothing had happened. But, we had to go.
Back at the house. I started looking around at what I should take or leave.
"Well, it's only going to be for a few days, a week at most. They won't let this town burn. I'll just take what I need for a weeks camping trip."
OH, if only I had known.
Details of the next hour are a bit fuzzy. Some things stick out in my memory as significant. Others are a bit blurry. There are some things I wish I'd had the presence of mind to do, others seemed important then, but really weren't in the long run.
I went to the closet and grabbed my camping over night bag. Check; pants, shirts, socks, underwear. What else would I need for a couple weeks? Hiking boots, take off the slippers. Jacket, it is November.
I looked around the closet. Lot's of clothes and a few memorabilia. Leave it.
I looked at my bed.
My big Maine Coon cat, Wally was asleep. "I better take him." I went into the spare room and grabbed the cat carrier.
(This is one of those moments I wish I could take back).
I carried it into the bedroom and set it on the bed. Wally took one look at it and bolted for the exit. Out the cat door and into the yard.
Gone forever... If only I had left it in the hallway and grabbed him and stuffed him into it.
My other cat, Henry, was already outside somewhere. I'd never find him, let alone catch him.
OK, to the gun safe. It's a big, fire proof safe. I wasn't too worried about the contents. After all, it's a FIRESAFE!
I opened it, grabbed the money clip with about $200 in cash. Left everything else; guns, ammo, gold nuggets, gold coins, silver coins, knives, passport, birth cert, insurance forms, final mortgage papers, final divorce papers, rare collectible papers, a vintage movie poster from 1936, and John Wayne in Paradise Canyon, 4' x 8' on linen. Auction value, about $10,000.
Why, oh why, didn't I take that!?
I had another fire safe. Smaller, but better insulation against fire. I left it alone, even though it contained $13,000 in cash, gold and silver coins. It also contained my fathers 9mm Lugar pistol, bought from an English farmer in the early 1950's who had taken it from a downed Luftwaffe pilot in his field. Disarmed him with a pitchfork, so the story goes, and the gold nugget necklace made from nuggets I had found and given to my mother on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Oh, the stories some of those things could tell! All gone now.
So, at this point, I had my overnight bag and nothing else. I tossed it in my truck and started to leave. The "inbound" lane was still open, although some people were starting to use it to get closer to the Skyway. They were yelled at and cursed by those patiently waiting in line in the outbound lane.
I pulled out of my driveway and was almost immediately stopped by someone in a HUGE motor-home blocking the inbound lane, trying to get into the outbound lane. All movement had essentially stopped. No one in the out bound lane had moved in half an hour.
Traffic was gridlocked.
I managed to pull into a driveway, turn around and get back to my house.
Crap! Now What!? I couldn't get out, couldn't leave even if I wanted to. By now, the electricity, Internet, cable and cell phones were out. No way to get information on what was happening! where was the fire? How bad was it? Where is the air support? Off in the distance, I started to hear small explosions. Propane tanks? Transformers? Thunder? (naw).
I had to open my garage door by hand. One more check of the house. All switches off, gas off, water off
(after I got a quick drink from the hose. I was starting to panic and my mouth was dry.)
Shit, what was going on!!? This cannot be happening!
I started to drive down the street to my buddies house. I met one of my neighbors on the way. We talked for a minute and I said, "Oliver is blocked off. We can't get out that way. Follow me. We may be able to get out on Bille Rd."
We arrived at John's house just in time to see him coming back down the road to his house from Bille Rd. He had his wife, trailer, 8 cats, all his most aluable possessions loaded and ready to flee.
He said, (and I'll NEVER forget this), "Bille Rd is blocked off! The idiots are abandoning their cars in the middle of the road and running back! Screaming, "Run for your life! God has doomed us!"
WHAT? Who are these idiots? You mean they didn't even pull of the road??
I drove out to Bille to see and sure enough, both lanes in and out were blocked with no one moving. I told my neighbor to try to get into the line of people moving out toward the Skyway. That's the only way out for you.
I looked at John and said, "It looks like the only way we are going to get out of here is on our quads. We can go around the stalled and stopped cars. Get your quad unloaded and I'll go get mine. Meet you here in 10."
I drove back to my house, snagging part of the fence on the way. I dragged a fence post, scrappin on the ground all the way back to my house. "Oh well, I'll take that off later once this is over."
I once again opened the garage door by hand and did a quick once over of the house. (Oh, if I'd only known then what I know now, I would have grabbed so many other things.)
I took my over night bag from the truck, and almost as an afterthought, took my pistol that I had concealed in the truck and put it in the bag.
(I have a CCW). By now, the sky is black and it looks like the middle of the night. The wind is howling in the tree tops. It still is relatively calm on the ground, but you can tell something very bad is happening close by and it's coming for you!
I take one last look at my house and all the things I love about it.
I'm only half sure that I will see it again as it is, but I've no doubt I will make it out of here in one piece. I'm resourceful if nothing else.
I'm already formulating several options of escape if I have to.
So, onto the quad I go, lamenting about my poor cats. Oh, they'll survive, cats have 9 lives.
I get to John's house and he's readying his quad to go. We talk. What are our options?
We hear explosions in the distance, they seem to be getting closer. Propane tanks, transformers, ammo, who knows, but it isn't thunder!
The fire is getting closer.
Any news? From anyone? No. All communication is cut off. We have no idea what is happening except in our own 100 yard area around us. We could be under a nuclear attack for all we know. Maybe this is the end of the world? We just don't know!
OK, options. we talk. Staying here is not good. We have water to fight it but for how long? Let's not panic. Bille Park is not far away. There is a big green area of nothing but grass all around. We could shelter there? There's the big asphalt parking lot by Albertsons. Maybe there? Should we ride this out here? Fire all around us? Don't panic, think rationally. Stay here and fight or go?
Finally, we decide. Let's go. Get out of here and let the Gods decide our fate. My street, Oliver, is deadlocked both lanes, no one moving. Bille too. BUT, unlike Oliver, Bille has wider shoulders and room for us to skirt along outside the stalled vehicles. We decide to set out.
(Again, I wish I had the foresight to tell John to put his cat carriers on my quad. I had room. Instead, he turned them back loose into the house. I could have saved 6 or more of his fur babies.) Oh the agony of that split second decision!
My neighbor has disappeared. No idea what happened to him like the other one. We move, John and his wife on a one person quad, with a ice chest of valuables and an over night bag.
Me, with my overnight bag. Think about it for a moment... My entire life history in one little bag and a change of clothes, that's it. I'll get into that later...
We drive down Bille Rd and it's just what John said it was. All vehicles stopped, no one moving toward the Skyway and escape. We weave in and out of traffic.
Suddenly I see it.
A pickup truck stopped in the middle of the road. No one inside. It's dead in the water, no one around it, blocking everyone that is behind it from getting out!
Then there's another! Vacant, in the other lane! No one inside! What are these people thinking!!? Both lanes are blocked by these idiots abandoning their cars in the middle of the road, condemning those behind them to death! oh, the humanity! I cannot believe the stupidity and panic of some people. If I was in my truck I'd have pushed them off the road. Hopefully someone did. Wweaving in and out of traffic we finally arrive at the Skyway. Again, this is an image that is seared in my memory. As we crested the last hill before dropping down to the Skyway, I beheld an image that will always be in my mind as long as I live.
For as far as I could see
Up, down, sideways, everywhere I looked was a sea of red tail lights and bright headlights. No lights from buildings, no street lights, no light what so ever, except for vehicles desperately trying to escape the oncoming doom of a Holocaust.
Yes, that's what it was. A Holocaust of biblical proportions! The sky was black as night, even though it was not yet noon on a nice sunny day outside of our hell on earth. We saw people running, holding children, a pack on their back of essentials, pleading for help, "Please give me a ride out of here!"
I saw people overwhelmed and stuffed in the cab and beds of pickup trucks, motorcycles with 3 or 4 people clinging to the driver, people running with children in tow. Everywhere, I saw people helping others to escape.
I encountered a woman running, holding a child, and asked her if she needed help. She asked me where I was going and I said, "Chico". She said, no, I'm going down here to get my mother, indicating one of the side streets. I said, "ok, good luck.".
We continued down the Skyway, riding on the sidewalks, the shoulder, dodging street signs, fire hydrants, flower beds, cars, until we finally emerged from the worst of the carnage.
Images of doom seared into my memory FOREVER!
Where the Skyway split into two separate lanes, we could not go down the "down lane". There were telephone poles down, burning across the road. I looked to my left and saw burning houses next to the road. To my right, more burning houses and buildings. I took a quick picture on my phone, up until now I had seen no evidence of actual fire. Lots of smoke high up, exploding tanks but no actual fire.
The time as noted on my cell phone was 12:26.
When I was waiting for John to go, I saw my first evidence that this was serious. Our houses were on the western side of town, not too far from Butte Creek Canyon. Far away from where the fire was coming from, "way over there, on the east side." While I was there, I watched a flaming ember come floating down into his yard and land on the pine needles next to his road. It was then that I knew, this is bad and it's going to get worse. We are screwed. The fire is miles away and yet we are getting hot embers down here.
As we scurried down the opposite lane of the Skyway going down towards Chico, I encountered another of those indefinable moments in human history, again seared in my memory.
I saw, the big "Welcome to Paradise" sign, known throughout the north valley, aflame. It was an awesome sight to see, that big, tall, wooden sign roaring flames like a Roman Candle. then I knew. My town was gone. My Paradise was gone. My tears could not be stopped.
I could hardly breath. But I had to keep going!
There were flames on either side of me, both sides of the road! The wind was blowing flaming embers across the road. Flames were being blown across in front of me! All I could do was hold my breath, squint my eyes, and keep the throttle down as far as I could. I could barely see, my eyes were watering from tears or the heat and wind, I didn't know and didn't care. All that mattered was to keep going.
I though of my poor cats. Would they make it out of this? my home, all that I had was in there, my whole life. Would it be ok? It didn't matter at this point, I had to survive. I would survive! This is not my fate to die in a silly forest fire! I was made of stronger stuff than this to die here!
Then, Suddenly the sky opened up! poof! Just like that, the smoke clud was gone and I was enveloped in blue sunshine! Wow! It was truly a miracle. I had been enveloped under a black cloud of smoke and ash, with a sky the color of coal, headlights on just to see ahead, for so many hours it seemed. Even though it had only been 4 or 5 hours, it seemed like a lifetime. And it had been a lifetime for me and so many thousands of others. Oh it was wonderful to be able to breath the clean air again. I stopped and signaled John to stop too.
I needed to collect myself.
As it happened, I chose a wide spot to stop on the Skyway, where there was a news crew documenting the fire. They rushed over to talk to me. I was removing my helmet and wiping the tears from my eyes, trying to gt a drink of water from my canteen. They started peppering me with questions. John made a rude comment which was quickly deleted, and I said something like this.
"Paradise is gone. The whole town is ablaze. There will be nothing left. The roads are gridlocked. People can't get out. There will be hundreds of people killed by the fire. It's over. Everything we knew is gone, burned to ash. This is the worse thing I have ever experienced."
Later, I saw part of that video they taped of me. I missed most of it, but many of my friends and acquaintances saw it and commented on it later.
From there, I rode on down the Skyway alone. John had gone on ahead. I shouldn't say alone. I was accompanied by hundreds of cars going the same way I was. Down to Chico.
Escape! I made it to a friends house off of Bruce road, shaken and numb. I had made it out alive! I may have lost everything I owned, but I was alive and unhurt. I quickly rode out to an are where I could see the whole ridge and took a quick video. I can hear my own voice shaking and quaking as I talk into the video. I should have said more, gone into more detail, but I was just too emotional to think clearly.
I needed a drink!
PART 2 - The AFTERMATH
Next; What happened later and where am I now.
So, the next few weeks are a blur. Thousands of people have descended on Chico. There was mass confusion and traffic jams. I made it to my girlfriends house, leaving my quad at my buddies. It was months later when I was able to pick it up from his garage, finding small bits of ash still clinging to it.
Life is Chaos!
Soon, there are tent cities set up, Walmart, Fair grounds, any place big enough to house displaced people. Food trucks and clothes were being given out to the survivors. A week later, the rains came, putting out the fire. The first few day were consumed watching TV news as the fire spread all the way down into the valley. But finally it was out. No one was allowed back up the hill for more than a month. The news got more deadly every day, now many died, how many homes destroyed, businesses lost, and more importantly, who was to blame.
I won't go into the gruesome details here, as it is well documented, the aftermath to those thousands of people who lost everything. My own story is much the same, although I think I was more fortunate than many. I had good insurance. I must say that AAA did a remarkable job for me. Within 2 weeks, a tent city of insurance agencies had been set up by all the major insurers. I waited in line, talked to an agent, asked me a few questions about my coverage, and within a few days I had a check enough to cover my lost truck, no questions asked. I got a new truck, a PO box, clothes and immediate supplies needed to at least survive a few more days. I had a warm, dry, comfortable home to stay in until I could figure out what to do next.
Dealing with health issues.
Again, the details of the next few months are irrelevant here. I could write pages of what I and my friends went through. I also developed a respiratory affliction that hung on for several months. I was given to coughing fits and spitting up Flem for a long time, due to smoke inhalation. I still have coughing fits from time to time. Having survived lung cancer the previous year, having part of one lung removed, probably didn't help. I can't run or walk very far now without getting a coughing fit, or having to stop and rest for awhile. This has seriously affected my ability to hike along distances for an extended period of time which is necessary for my return to gold mining.
On November 16th, a First Responder friend sent me a photo of my house. As I had feared, it was completely destroyed.
December 15th, over a month after the fire, I was finally allowed to return to survey the damage.
It was complete, my home was totally destroyed, nothing left but ash, bent metal, and mushy drywall. I spent the next few months sifting through the debris and salvaging a few things. Only the things made of metal and a few ceramics were worth saving.
Tears, regret, despair, and agony start to set in and show. the things that can be replaced; furniture, clothes, appliances, tools, the house itself; those are easy to replace. Money can replace those.
What Can't EVER be Replaced!
My Life History. Everything I have ever owned was in my house. From my high school yearbook, college memorabilia, my daughters toys, the mall things my mother had saved from my childhood, old letters, and of course, PICTURES! People often under estimate the value of pictures. For every picture, there is a memory; when and where it was taken, who was there, what was going on in your life when it was taken. Without those, ones life becomes meaningless. You cease to exist. They are a record that you lived and you did those things. Without those, the record of your life on this earth ends. All the things in that house screams, "I was here! This is what I did! Look at this! Remember me!"
What scars me the most?
Well, I'm not one who subscribes to the namby pamby, psycho babel of PHSD or trauma induced psychosis. That's for weaker minds to unravel.
As I said, I'm made of stronger stuff.
My father taught me well. I figured out a way out of the firestorm and acted on it. I used logic and deductive reasoning to decide how to act. And I acted on it, but I had options just in case.
As Frank Sinatra once said, "I'll just pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back in game. That's life!"
As to what I miss the most, the most sentimental item I lost?
What I regret the most not saving? Number one~
My Mothers ashes. I still had the velvet bag of her ashes from the funeral home sitting next to my book case. I just hadn't got around to bringing her up to Yreka to join my fathers ashes in the churchyard where they spent so many years together. I still agonize over that. Why, oh why, didn't I see that and grab it? I'll never know. It haunts me every day.
My Poor Cats - They never knew what was happening. I was SO close to getting Wally, if only I'd done something just a little bit different. I found their bodies during the clean up and gave them both a special burial there where they loved the yard so much, chasing squirrels.
All the other stuff, too numerous to mention but a few highlights. My office. I had a business out of my home since 1980, selling metal detectors and recreational gold mining equipment. I had a library of books and research material some very valuable and rare, going back to the mid 1800's. Gold Rush relics and artifacts I had found over the years, a regular museum of gold rush history.
My display case of things I had found over the years. Again, not all that valuable, but to ME, they were. I could pick out any item in there and remember where I found it, who was with me, and the circumstances of when I found it. All gone now. Not to mention, all my inventory of detectors, loops and accessories for sale, in addition to my own machines and supplies.
Are Fire Safes really Safe?
The fire safes proved to be not so fire safe. All of my guns cash, gold, silver, knives, and valuable artifacts, were burned and melted to a crisp. All lost. Things money cannot replace.
I've already mentioned the pictures. I was SO close to grabbing my computer, but that was 5 more minutes than I thought I could spare. Panic had taken over. So my memories lost. To be clear, those are MY memories, MY life, MY history. Nothing to share now with my grandsons. ARRG! I will not be remembered for more than a few years.
I could go on and on but those are the highlights. So much lost, and so little time now. I'm getting on in years but I've had a good life. Not much time left now for me. I had hoped to pass on to my grandsons what I knew, what I had learned, just like my father had to me. But, no, that time has passed now. The fire took all that away from me.
Life Goes On...
As for now, I am still living "temporarily" with my girlfriend in her house in Chico. I have been looking for 2 years now for a permanent home where I can re-build my life, but so far nothing has proven to be the perfect fit for my winter years. I'm safe, warm, and dry, but it's not quite right. It's not my house, I'm not surrounded by "my things". I can't rebuild my "shield" around me.
Sigh..So, I guess that's it for now. I may add to this as I think of it. So much lost, so little time. NO ONE can replace what was lost and I know I am only one of many thousands who are going through the same thing. I feel for them, as I feel for myself. Whenever I get together with friends who went through it the conversation eventually turns toward it; what did you lose, how did you escape, and what are you doing now about it? The answer is usually the same; just trying to move on, adjust, rebuild, reclaim, remember.
That is really all we can do now. REMEMBER
Thank you for taking the time to read My Story.
This was one of the deadliest fires in California's History.
I survived this tragedy and wanted to share my story.
Nov. 8th 2023 was the 5th Anniversary (remembrance) of the Camp Fire
Destroying Pulga, Concow, Paradise, and parts of Magalia Ca.
So many lives lost due to negligence and unpreparedness of our community.
STAY ALERT ~ PREPARE