How My Brother Survived The Camp Fire

My brother lives in Paradise, California. For five hours on November 8, while wildfire devoured the town, I had no idea if he was alive or dead.

When my mother called me on the morning of November 8, her voice cracked in panic.

“Have you heard about the fire, Janelle?” From the way she said my name, I knew something was terribly wrong; I readied myself to hear that somebody had died, or my house was engulfed in flames.

“There’s a fire in Paradise. Ross evacuated the hospital and called me from the road and he’s trapped surrounded by flames and it’s 110 degrees inside his truck and he can’t get out.” Her words rushed by me in a stream of the incomprehensible.

Ross is my brother, two and a half years my senior, an OB-GYN who lives and works in Paradise, California, two hours north of my town. We see each other often, his three kids combining forces with my four. We are friends. We are close, close friends.

My hands shook. My blood beat the walls of my body. I was already ready for death. I was already ready for that which cannot be. I hated my mother for telling me this. I hated her for not telling me more.

“Is he alive?” I could hardly speak, yet somehow yelled. “Did he get out? What’s he going to do?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “The phone cut out.”

He told her he was watching the bumper melt off the car in front of him. He said he was 10 feet and 30 feet from burning buildings, and that it was black as night in the middle of the day. He said he was on Pentz Road. He said he was really scared.

And then the call dropped.

You go to the beginning of the love, the history, until the person who may die — or did die — fills you up and takes you over. 

I saw us then as children. He wasn’t a grown man anymore; he was my big brother of way back then, before we were in our forties, before we had kids. He was the boy I played with under the Monterey cypress trees on the beach in central California — Tetris on Nintendo, mac ‘n’ cheese on the nights our mom was gone. The Beastie Boys on MTV. Rigging up free cable from the neighbors when we couldn’t afford it. Walking home for all eternity, it seemed, from school.

That’s how it goes. You go all the way back to where it began, the source. You go to the beginning of the love, the history, until the person who may die — or did die — fills you up and takes you over as your own blood runs through your veins, as if it’s you on the chopping block, as if your own air has been sucked into nothing, and you grasp and beg for a return. To what was. To mere moments before. Just give it back.

You don’t go back to the everyday, the frivolous friendship with chitchat and distance and bickering. You go to the start of the love and you sit there and you watch it burn.

We knew that my brother’s wife and kids were safely on their way down the hill to Chico, but he was trapped, and we knew that too. I called my husband and drove straight to my mother’s house, where we sat like caged animals. I compulsively checked Twitter, crying when I saw one video that showed Pentz Road, right then, apocalyptically burning.

You tell yourself he’s an Eagle Scout. You tell yourself he’s level-headed. You tell yourself it’s possible to think your way out of a firestorm. You tell yourself these things and you believe them not at all.

For five hours, we waited. For five hours, we called family and felt powerless and yelled at each other a little, because even in moments like that, we’re just us. Just family. Still the everyday kind.

I didn’t break until I heard our father’s voice, a voice of unwavering confidence. “He is driving through an area that’s already burned out, Janelle. He’s absolutely safe.” This was unequivocally false. This was something woven by a father in terror, a rock formed by imagination because the alternative is impossible.

After sitting in his truck for two and a half hours, Ross made it half a mile, inching along the middle of the road. He knew that heat from fire increases exponentially the closer you are to it, meaning 10 feet of distance from the flames consuming the buildings on either side of you is significantly different than five, so he didn’t move from the center of the road. Others didn’t know this — I wouldn’t have — and they were swerving to the edge of the road to try to get around others, or see what was ahead, and when they did so, their cars would sometimes catch fire, forcing the occupants to flee the car and run.

One of the vehicles in flames on the side of a road was an ambulance that had been carrying a woman who had just had a cesarean at Feather River, the hospital where my brother delivers babies. When the ambulance caught on fire, the crew and patients fled to someone's garage, where a nurse stood on the roof and used a hose to keep the flames at bay. Mother and baby both survived. My brother took a picture of the burning ambulance from his truck.

At the end of the half mile, he was directed by firefighters to a road that led to a Kmart parking lot, where he parked his truck alongside dozens of other cars, and he waited. A firefighter perched on his engine in front of them, spraying his massive hose east, then circling over the cars to keep them cool, then west, keeping the flames at bay.

This was the plan. If the flames got closer anyway, the firefighters were going to build a barricade with burned-out mobile homes and make everyone huddle behind it in an attempt to block the heat. This was it. This was the whole plan.

I held my brother’s face in my hands. It’s hard to explain what that felt like.

The next day, I held my brother’s face in my hands. It’s hard to explain what that felt like.

His family lost their home, but they didn’t lose everything. At least 79 people have died in the Camp Fire, making it the most destructive and deadly fire in California’s history. Hundreds of people are still missing. We were the luckier ones.

Three days after the fire, my sister-in-law sent me photos shared by a friend who went back into town with her husband, a police officer. The pictures were of Paradise Elementary School. Well, what was left of it. The entire school was incinerated — every building, every play structure, every classroom.

Leaning against a tree in the elementary school playground, there had been a “Buddy Bench.” This is where kids go when they need a friend, when they need somebody to play with. Do you remember that feeling? Of walking around with nowhere to go, watching the kids play around you, wanting to join them but lacking the courage to try?

And now, amid the blackened ash and rubble of the playground where the kindergarteners played, amid an ever-expanding ripple of gray, dead, indecipherable objects, stands this bench, untouched.

Tens of thousands of acres around Paradise have burned, and yet the Buddy Bench remains — leaning, even, against an unburned tree. It’s almost sickly poetic, saccharine. It’s so silently loaded.

That bench seemed to shout something from some faraway place, some deep cavern: “This is what you have, little mountain town. You have a bench where you can find somebody who needs you too. You can sit down when you’re afraid, and trust that somebody will show up.”

As the fire burned through Paradise in those early hours, people showed up for others in incredible ways and trusted that somebody would show up for them: The horse trainer, a friend of my brother's, writing her phone number on her horses’ bodies and setting them free, unable to transport them all. The men, women, and children picked up by someone else driving down the same blazing road. The nurse who turned around and drove back into Paradise to help. The 600 strangers who retweeted a tweet about my brother while he was lost to us. Last year’s California fire victims sending furniture and gift cards to the Paradise folks now.

I keep thinking about that bench surviving the flames — a crazy heart right in the center of it all, standing strangely alone in a world destroyed, and asking us to sit together.

When my 8-year-old daughter saw her uncle, she stared at him silently, her eyes filling with tears, until she said, “Uncle Ross, I was really scared for you.” He said, “So was I,” and lifted her onto his lap, where they sat together for a long time. ●

Janelle Hanchett is the founder of the blog Renegade Mothering. Her first book, I’m Just Happy to Be Here, was published by Hachette in May 2018. She lives in Northern California with her husband and four children.

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