Camp Fire changed lives: a survivor’s story

Photo Caption: Allan Stellar with Angel. Photo Credit: Andrew Meyer

“This is what being a climate change refugee feels like…”

Allan Stellar
Ethnic Media Services/ChicoSol

That awful, awful day.

On that awful day, when Paradise was engulfed in flames, I hugged my yellow lab Angel goodbye. I woke up early, 5 a.m., and decided to leave for work without our normal early morning hike. I lived in the foothills, at 2,000 feet, some 37 miles from Chico where I had work to do as a home health RN.

I had lived in this off-grid solar house for a decade, enjoying the yip yap of coyotes in the country and sleeping on the deck under the stars on hot summer nights. Angel watched me dress that morning with an eerie gaze. It was as if she knew something was going to happen. As I left, I promised I would be back in the afternoon to take her for a hike.

It was 6:30 am. Five miles away, in Pulga, a spark started a fire.

At 6:45 a.m., driving down Highway 70, CalFire trucks were booking it up the hill. I saw a plume of smoke in my rear view mirror. Not too big. It looked far enough away not to pose too much of a problem. There would be plenty of time to evacuate should the need arise. I had been through these evacuations four times before in the last 10 years.

I stupidly drove to Chico and got a latte. Then I looked out the window at “The Grateful Bean” coffee house and saw the smoke. I saw a massive plume of smoke that made my stomach feel like it had been sliced open. I tore out of there to go get my dog.

Too late. At 8 o’clock, Highway 70 was already blocked at Pentz. The police officer would not let me up the hill. I pulled off to the side of the road and wept. My dog was up there.

Somewhere around 52,000 people have an evacuation story regarding that tragic morning. For these 52,000 people, it was a “9/11” moment. None of us will ever forget where we were when we saw that massive plume of smoke. That plume became our Twin Towers moment.

The stories are horrendous. People caught in cars with steering wheels melting. Hospitals evacuated and patients cared for in garages. Firefighters protecting hundreds of stranded victims in parking lots. In Concow (where I lived), residents had to jump into the lake to save themselves. Thousands of people literally had minutes to save themselves. The stories will be shared for years.

On that awful day, Nov. 8, 2018, I, unwillingly, became a climate change refugee.

At first, I couch-surfed with friends in Chico. After five days I got confirmation that my house, my ugly little solar, off-grid, cobb and straw bale house, was destroyed. Who knew cobb (a mixture of straw, clay and sand) could burn? This house that, according to the alternative building books, was immune to fire, burned to the ground. And still no sign of my dog, Angel.

For days I was distraught and everyone believed she was gone. I grieved my stalwart friend of a decade and couldn’t believe my ears when she was found in the wreckage. My clever survivor.

A neighbor who had permission to be up in Concow found my dog! Angel had survived for six days by crawling into a hole in a tree. Her paws were burnt to the point that she couldn’t walk; she could only crawl. When I was reunited with her at Valley Oak Animal Hospital, she was visibly skinnier. Her collar that had been tight was now loose enough that it could slip right over her head. She was happy to be found. A friend graciously took her in to her Gerber farm and attended to her daily dressing changes.

After a week of couch-surfing in smoky Chico, I had to get away, so I found a room in Redding for a couple of days. I brought my dog Angel with me for comfort. After 10 days, my insurance company was able to secure a room for me in Corning at the Super 8. This is where I am as I type out this story.

My future is uncertain. Much of my work was with clients in Paradise, a town that doesn’t exist anymore. My dog will take two months to heal from her burns.

How does it feel to be a climate change refugee? I have anxiety that stays with me all day. I have lost my appetite. I am having problems making decisions for my life. I can’t sleep at night without pharmacological assistance.

I am one of the lucky ones: I had insurance. And yet, competing with 50,000 other climate refugees for housing, in an already tight market, is daunting. I have enough money, but I still have no place to live with my dog.

I am through living in wildfire country. Those wonderful foothills that I love so much have become tinder traps for fire. California has simply become unlivable during the fire season, a season that begins earlier every year and ends later every year. We all suffer as the smoke makes 20-cigarette-a-day smokers out of all of us. No one is unaffected. My son called me from Connecticut the other day, and told me that the sky was hazy there due to the Camp Fire. That’s how far the smoke travels.

On the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, that awful day, a scientist on top of a mountain in Hawaii took a reading of CO2 – the carbon emissions that are the most important component in climate change. They’ve been doing that every day since 1958. On Nov. 8, the reading was 409.02. That first reading in 1958 was 221.1. Scientists say the safe level for CO2 is 350.

Over the last few years, the Sierra has lost millions of trees to bark beetles and drought – side effects of climate change. The forest couldn’t be drier. In addition, there had been only one rain storm in September. The November rains hadn’t arrived yet. The last real rain was back in April. A hot summer scorched everything. The summers have been scorching the area more and more over the past 20 years.

This is what climate change looks like. The new normal. Huge fire. Smoke. All of it predicted back in the ’80s by our climate scientists.

Ironic that the prince of doubt when it comes to climate change, Anthony Watts, is a local weather celebrity. He should be fired immediately.

And this is what being a climate change refugee feels like: Doubt. Uncertainty. Anxiety. Loss. No home. I fear returning to the forest. My dog and I will probably end up living in a gifted trailer on a coworker’s farm outside of Corning –a landscape of dreary industrial agriculture and domesticated animals and far from the wilds of the tinder-box forest.

Allan Stellar is a home health RN. He has written on a freelance basis for ChicoSol, the Chico News and Review, Monthly Review, Counterpunch, The Mother Earth News and elsewhere. Angel is expected to recover fully from her burns and will once again accompany Allan on daily walks in a couple months.