1 Year Later: My Camp Fire Story – Michelle Kruse

A lot can happen in a year. You can move into a new home, get a new pet, start a new relationship, or even get married. Plenty of bad things can happen in a year too, you could lose a loved one, get sick, or end a friendship. And as with all things, a spectrum of mundane things can happen as well, like getting a coffee or taking out your trash.

I’m not the first one to talk about it, but measuring a year’s worth of moments is a difficult thing to do. Just like many people in the world, a tragedy happened in my life and not for the first time. But still, I feel compelled to reflect on a moment that still sends a shiver down my spine when I think about it. Excuse me for a moment while I reflect on my community, my life, and the environment I find myself in one year after one of the worst days of our lives.

I can’t think about my story of the Camp Fire without thinking of the day(s) before. How I had no idea, as most don’t, that a world-altering event would occur in days or hours.

In my work, I find an overlap in the games industry. It’s this overlap that leads me to N7 day, a day in which many in the industry reflect on their time with the popular series Mass Effect. And if this sounds like a small, mundane detail then that is because it is.

See, on November 7th, 2018 I had two main concerns: I wanted to play Mass Effect for the first time the next day and I had a big games event on Sunday in San Francisco. I went throughout my day talking with friends about both of these things, I didn’t reach out to my mom or step-dad for any reason that day. Although, I did have plans to visit my parent’s home in the next two weeks.

I couldn’t know what would happen the next day, nobody could. But because the games industry recognizes N7 day the way that they do, not a year will go by now that I don’t think about both the day of and the day before the fire.

I could be wrong, I mean I’ve been wrong plenty of times before, but I don’t know if anyone understands how lucky we were with the outcome of the Camp Fire. We suffered a great tragedy, in the destruction not only of our communities but of people’s lives. But I’m not sure if anyone, including those who evacuated that day, truly grasp how close they all came to dying.

I called my mom at 8 am. I’d been following the news and evacuation orders while driving in the pitch-black smoke on my way to work. My parents live a bit further up in Paradise, off of a gravel encrusted forest service road, which means evacuations for previous fires never impacted them and lead my whole family to have a non-emergency feeling toward news of a fire in the area. So when my mom told me she wasn’t that worried, because they haven’t been told to evacuate, I simply rolled my eyes and told her to stay in touch.

Moments later I was calling her with the news; congratulations, they’d been upgraded to a mandatory evacuation. Nobody called them, nobody alerted their mobile phones, and nobody knocked on their door. Nobody would have told my parents that there was an evacuation for their zone, just like nobody (except for our own neighbors and community members) told the rest of Pulga, Concow, Paradise, and Magalia.

I don’t blame anyone for the non-notification. It was a fast-moving fire and Paradise was lacking man-power when it came to law enforcement anyway. But in retrospect, I think most of us realize how precious mere seconds were during the Camp Fire.

My mom’s calls went in and out as service became nearly non-existent. At one moment she was stuck on the very forest service road we condemned every time it snowed. She was afraid as she watched a home we’d seen on every drive to and from school go up in flames, her car immobilized by the dead-stopped traffic on the main road.

“I turned off my vents, I can feel the fire outside.”

It was something she said to me many times. I heard her first-hand account of what she was seeing and just how horrific the situation was set-up to be. I talked to her while someone directing traffic split her car up from my step-dad’s. I’m not sure if it was my brain protecting me from the truth or not, but I still can’t fully process hearing any of that.

When our calls would eventually drop I’d scramble. Turning to co-workers who were frantically speaking with their loved ones on the phone. Checking in with friends, cousins, even enemies just to make sure everyone was getting out alright. I started planning for my parents and their six cats to stay in our rental with myself, my husband, and our three dogs. I planned for them to live with us for a long time, I had a feeling our family’s home and everything we’d had would be gone.

One of the things my mom described to me while she was in the hellscape of the Camp Fire, was that pick-up trucks were housing pedestrians. Covered in blankets and huddled in the beds, the people were being offered rides that literally saved their lives.

This kindness radiated through our community in the coming days, weeks, and even peeks through a year later. My landlord offered my parent’s a rental when we reached out, my aunt in Folsom collected furniture and other items from her friends to bring over, and that was just for my family. I saw and heard of countless moments over time of people helping others. Even months later, at a Target in a different county entirely, one woman covered for my mom’s purchase.

I got lucky. My parents survived, they made it out and were able to continue their lives. Our neighbor, a friend, was not as lucky. 85 people were not as lucky. It’s hard to remember that day and the gravity of the Camp Fire.

You think about all of the what-ifs. What if I’d known? What if I could have gone up there and helped? What if I had told someone to check on them?

Loss is hard. Letting go of that loss and that feeling is even harder. I don’t want to let go of Paradise, my hometown. Even if that means not letting go of the very nightmare that changed our lives.

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