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My name is Steve Suihkonen and I was raised in Paradise from the age of 12 and it is a small town characterized by it’s tall trees, antique shops, gold mining history, beautiful rivers, and abundant wildlife. It’s a small enough town where going to the store often leads into running into someone you’ve known for years. Paradise is located on a ridge roughly 2000 feet in elevation surrounded by a couple large canyons. We have always been at risk of fire, but fortunately avoided serious harm over the decades. On Thursday, November 8th, our small town was tragically struck by the Camp Fire. The conditions were unfortunately just right when considering the high winds, dense vegetation, few escape routes for residents, lack of rain, and the fire originated at the base of a deep canyon near the north part of town.

That morning I was scheduled to have the windshield replaced on my company car. The appointment was at 8 a.m. however I noticed smoke around 7:15. At that time, I looked online and the fire was located a few miles away in a town called Pulga located at the base of the Feather River canyon. The fire was only 10 acres in size and there were no evacuations recommended. I proceeded to eat breakfast and get ready for work. My son, Chase, was leaving for school around 7:45 and we both noticed the amount of smoke had increased. The wind was also very strong and was blowing directly over the top of Paradise. I made a huge mistake by allowing my son to drive to school, but growing up in a mountain town I had become a bit calloused to the threat of wildfires. My cell phone rang and it was the windshield repairman calling to tell me he was going to arrive around 8. I checked on the fire conditions once again and the fire had rapidly grown to 1000 acres and officials were calling for mandatory evacuations on the east side of town, close to where my home was located. I quickly called my son to return home, while standing in my driveway mesmerized by the dark cloud of smoke beginning to fill the air. At that moment, the repairman showed up and he told me traffic was starting to increase and there was fire spotted on the south end of town. I was confused how the fire was already covering the east perimeter of town. He was also a Paradise resident and both agreed we needed to attend to our families and get out of town. I ran inside to inform my wife, Mindy, that we needed to leave and I’d call my son to get him back home asap. Within a few minutes, my family of four, including our 3 year old son, Mason, evacuated our home. I never once thought it would be the last time I saw my home standing.

My family is fortunate to have numerous family members in town including both sets of parents, grandparents, in-laws, and cousins. My wife instantly began calling and texting loved ones while I drove to the end of our street and noticed all the traffic going northbound. All of this was happening so quickly and the threat of a disastrous fire was becoming evident. The black smoke was billowing from the northeast and traffic is usually never an issue in our town. Paradise is only a few miles long and contains only three main roads. We happen to live on the north end of town and we always knew a mass evacuation would be difficult. I was directed by a Sheriff to go over to the Skyway, our town’s main road which was about a quarter mile away. Once I turned onto the side street traffic came to a halt. We looked around at our surroundings and for me, that’s when I started to get concerned. Traffic is never an issue, the pine trees are swaying in the strong wind, and we started to notice burning embers flying through the sky. The fire was obviously rapidly approaching and we were stuck in traffic. Panicked drivers now started filling the left hand lane on this windy residential street and a frantic dash to get out of town had begun. I was trying to stay calm but I realized that this was the fire the town had always feared could happen one day. We were stuck in traffic, with both lanes packed, trying to get over to the Skyway which was only a quarter mile away. The only encouragement we received was that loved ones in the south end of town were getting out safely.

After about an hour, we reached Skyway and that’s when the true chaos started. The Skyway is located on the other canyon rim and we slowly turned the corner to head southbound and were astonished to see a sheet of fire covering a row of pine trees burning directly towards us and the town. The fire was close enough to feel its radiant heat through the windshield. The realization that our community was surrounded by a fire fueled by strong winds and dry conditions. The idea of just getting out of the car and attempting to escape on foot crossed our minds, but we ultimately believed it was safest to remain inside the car and inch along in traffic. Fear was definitely starting to set in as we were surrounded by pine trees with a fire directly behind us. Once we turned to go south, I couldn’t see the fire, but the day was turning into night. The black smoke was everywhere and thousands of thoughts were running through my head. Were we going to make it out? Are all my family and friends going to be ok? Can this fire be stopped? Suddenly the cell phone reception stopped and we sat together in our car surrounded by others all trying to stay alive. I was constantly checking my rear view mirror for any sign of the blaze. What was our escape plan? Since we were in gridlock traffic I told my family if the fire was to get too close we would be forced to run into any open area to hopefully avoid being a casualty.

Patience was lost as drivers were honking, swerving, and vying to get through a tight funnel that had way too many vehicles. Inch by inch, foot by foot, we slowly kept crawling out of town. We started hearing extremely loud explosions one after the next and realized it was propane tanks bursting as the fire marched through town. The AM radio station conveyed the information about a fire that was rapidly engulfing the town. My thought process was to just get to the stretch of road where it widens in hopes that traffic would flow better and get away from the tall trees on both sides of the road. At times like these, you realize what’s most important. My families safety was at the forefront of my mind, but I felt helpless. Ultimately, we were at the mercy of the fire. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it to the wider section of road and traffic was five to six cars wide on a four lane road all pointing one way out of town. The firefighters were hooking up to hydrants near a local store as we witnessed dozens of homes fully engulfed in flames. Passing motorists, along with myself, we all had a look of terror and utmost concern. Suddenly the cell service came back as dozens of texts and calls started to populate our phones. Afterwards I pondered how it’s nearly as traumatic to not know if a loved one is safe as opposed to actually being in the life threatening situation itself.

When the sky went black, we quickly turned off our A/C because the car would fill with smoke. However, there were pockets where the smoke would lighten up a little bit and we would roll down the windows to get some cleaner air. The humidity was very high and it was tough to breathe. Suddenly our youngest son, Mason, needed to use the bathroom. Obviously there was no way we were going to pull over, so we needed to improvise. Luckily, we had a Gatorade bottle in the car and I’m sure you can all imagine how it was used. It was the only time of the five and a half hour evacuation that provided a tiny bit of comic relief. At this point, we started to finally believe we were going to be alright. The town limits were only about a half a mile away and traffic was starting to move at about five miles per hour.

As we turned the last corner leaving town, we were met with a number of structures burning on each side of the road and noticed evidence the fire had crossed the Skyway. A number of cars had caught on fire and were left abandoned. Police officers were urging reluctant drivers to pass thru the 2-3 foot flames because there was simply no alternative. During the entire evacuation, it was very frustrating to not understand why we weren’t moving at a faster pace. Afterwards, realizing the majority of the town went southbound on Skyway and were met with flames dancing over the street, it’s easy to now understand why it took so much time to evacuate.

The moment we passed through all the smoke and fire, it was a humongous relief to realize that we were safe. We immediately started calling and texting everyone to tell them we made it out and started inquiring about loved ones and their whereabouts. After about 10-15 minutes we knew all of our family was safe, but knew that based on what we’d just witnessed that many people were still at risk. Mindy’s phone then received a call from a single mom with two teenage daughters. The mom heard about the fire and quickly raced up to Paradise to get her daughter from Magalia (a community about a half mile north of Paradise). The other daughter was located at school in Chico. The mom had driven up the bike path because Skyway was completely blocked with oncoming traffic, along with numerous others, to try and save her daughter. She told us that she was stranded at the gas station with about a hundred other people because the fire was all around them. It was heart wrenching to hear a mother convinced that they weren’t going to survive. We told her that we could pick up her daughter from school in Chico. She further explained how her daughter had a major leg surgery scheduled the next day at 5 a.m. and pleaded with us to get her to the surgery if she didn’t escape the fire. We agreed and picked up the daughter from school. The amount of fear and sheer terror the daughter displayed was so painful to observe. The pendulum of emotion was on opposite ends as she feared the worst. We drove to a local restaurant to meet up with family and friends. Everyone was in a state of shock and each had a unique story of how they escaped. For a few hours we talked, cried, hugged, and tried to get updates on the fire. The entire time we were at the restaurant, the daughter cried as we attempted to console her and try to get some type of information.

Finally her cell phone rang and it was her mother. Her mom was still trapped, but was safe because she and the others had located a parking lot to take refuge. They could see the fire in every direction and were astonished by the number of cars, trees, and homes burning. She assured her daughter that she was going to be ok and to promise her to carry out the procedure. My thought was to book a hotel near Sacramento that night since it was close to the hospital. Also, the fire was still spreading and we wanted to be far away from danger. We were all exhausted from the day and finally arrived in Roseville around 8 p.m. For the next few hours we spoke with family and friends, while the daughter still hadn’t received a call. Finally, her phone rang again and it was her mom. The police ended up getting her daughter and the fire cleared enough so the mom could get down the hill. The two were able to reunite at a shelter and upon hearing the news, the daughter burst into tears of joy and relief.

After checking into the hotel, my son and I went to the store to get a few air mattresses to accommodate seven people and their small dog, Chewy, in our hotel room. Soon after we got back, there was a knock on the hotel door. The unbridled joy between the family of three was a sight to be seen as they rejoiced in their reunion. For the next two nights I’m not sure anyone got to sleep. I found my mind raced in a thousand different directions recalling different aspects of the fire and trying to figure out the future. The main focus during the day was hearing the various details of the event. The number of lives lost was increasing by the hour and the wind was pushing the blaze towards other communities. Attempting to triage what to do next was a daunting task. From calling loved ones to filing insurance claims was emotionally draining and was magnified by the lack of sleep.

On Friday night I received a call from my brother-in-law asking if I wanted to help deliver water to firefighters up in Paradise. He owns a large construction company and has two water tankers. He explained that the fire hydrants were no longer supplying water because of all the broken pipes and the tankers would drive around and fill up the empty fire engine tanks. The next morning I drove back up to the Chico area to meet at his business site. By the time I reached the outskirts of Chico (which is about 20 minutes from Paradise) the amount of smoke was unbelievable. He had told me to pick up some breathing masks because the entire area was sold out. We left the yard with the two trucks and started to approach the town limits. Upon arrival, we were waived thru by military police who weren’t allowing the general public into town. As we climbed the hill into Paradise it quickly became obvious that the town had been demolished. I’d seen the images for the past couple days showing the wreckage, but seeing it all in person was surreal. The once beautiful town looked like a bomb had been dropped in the center and the explosion had reached in every direction. For the entire day I didn’t see a half acre that wasn’t exposed to the carnage. Driving up and down streets was like a war zone. Hundreds of cars burnt to the grown, businesses I visited for decades were gone, telephone poles snapped in half, and a disgusting gray and black ash color everywhere. It was rare to see a home standing as we would pass 15-20 homes for every one still standing. Firefighters were still battling spot fires and starting the process of searching for survivors. Numerous family and friends were texting their addresses in hopes of getting news on the condition of their home. Sadly, very few people received positive information.

We finally made it to my street and turned the corner to see the wreckage. Not only was my home gone, but all my neighbors homes on the street were reduced to rubble. I got out of the truck and stood in shock at the base of my foundation. It suddenly hit me that everything that had any sentimental value was gone. The harsh reality of family photos, all of my wife’s homemade decorations, my son’s little league trophies, and even my youngest son’s favorite blanket were gone forever. I felt like I had been hit in the stomach and was gasping for air. Driving down the street was equally difficult to see my parents home ruined. The home I where I was mainly raised was reduced to ash and thought of my parents having to cope at their age was a concerning thought. I couldn’t believe that an entire community was transformed in a few short hours and would take thousands of hours and resources to reconstruct.

Everyday that passes the tragic number of lives lost is increasing. At this time 77 people have lost their lives and 1,318 people missing. Thinking back now, the fire could have been a hundred times worse if it had started during the night. The pace at which it spread was astounding. Also, Paradise has always been considered a retirement community with numerous elderly people, who would have even more trouble attempting to escape. The mobile home parks were especially hit hard because of their construction and close proximity to each other. It was painful to see the mobiles flattened while burnt cars remained parked outside in the driveway. The vast majority of deaths thus far has been primary elderly citizens. It’s so unfortunate to fathom a town missing a large segment of this vitally important population.

The massive ripple effect starts right after an event of this magnitude. The countless hours of handling insurance, finding a place to live, helping family cope, lying in bed wide awake, survivor guilt, volunteering to help, relaying information, hundreds of phone calls and texts, numerous emotions, pondering the future, and trying to adjust to the vastly different environment of your life. It definitely forces one to reconsider priorities. The few areas that I’ve focused on is to always attempt to love each other, hold earthly possessions loosely, and make family and friends a top priority.

My family and I were extremely fortunate to escape the fire unharmed and to have insurance for our losses. My heart grieves for the number of lives lost in this fire. I know a number of people who died or who are still missing. These people are the ones who are the true victims. There is another segment who didn’t have insurance. The mom with the two teenagers were renting a home, but didn’t have renters insurance. At the time I write this letter, it’s unknown if their home is alright or not. If it burned, they will have lost everything they own with no means to replace their belongings. Paradise is a community that has one of the lowest household earnings in the entire state. A huge number of people are on government assistance and couldn’t afford to be insured. Many of these families have generational substance abuse issues and poor mental health that has led to a large segment of people living paycheck to paycheck. I sometimes wonder if that was my situation I grew up in, would I be able to break the trend? I don’t know.

My intent is to not get any recognition or financial support. I simply acted on instinct and focused on getting my family out of town safely. My goal is to simply share my story and hopefully provide a means to support those in need. It’s human nature to desire to help those in need, but eventually life goes on. The news will shift to another story and the long rebuilding process will begin for the town of Paradise. I look forward to witnessing the incremental victories of the smoke clearing, debris removed, grass growing again, homes being constructed, and the schools opening again. I’ve been amazed at the optimism and resilience of the people I’ve talked to about our town. The tenacity and willingness to help in every way possible has been contagious. I know our town will rebuild and the relationships amongst all of us will be fortified because of this common bond.

If you feel compelled to help I believe one of the best ways would be to donate funds to the Alliance Kingdom Builders, also known as AKB. It’s a 501(c)3 non-profit group of men and women who specialize in construction. They have repaired numerous structures in Paradise and have traveled as far as Mexico to help those in need. There is a vetting process for each applicant to ensure they really need assistance. We believe someday soon new homes are going to be built, while others parts of town will be repaired. AKB will undoubtably need supplies to help the ones in need. Please visit their GoFundMe page here, and any amount donated would go towards rebuilding Paradise. Thank you so much for all your thoughts, prayers, and support during this season!!

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