This is what death looks like
Terrified they wouldn’t escape the Camp Fire, some reached for their phones to record how they outwitted death. Watching can be as painful as recovering.
“Noooo. Go on! Go! I’m not dying right here.” — Tamra Fisher, screaming in a 25-minute video recorded as she escaped
PARADISE » A week after the Camp Fire, Tamra Fisher posted a message on Facebook:
“You may all unfriend me and I wouldn’t blame you,” she wrote, a bit embarrassed by the video she was about to share. “I am that person in an emergency.” The one who screams, who cries, who curses. Like so many others who feared they would burn alive that November day when smoke blocked the sun and morning looked like night, she hit the record button on her phone as she fled. The recording runs — for a full 25 minutes — with the phone in her hand or stuffed in the car’s cup holder.
In the video, you see the tunnels of flames, the embers snapping sideways along the road, glowing as red as the line of brake lights stopped in front of her.
“Move! Move!” she cried. “Oh God. Go! Go! I’m scared. Go! Go! Come on!”
She lays on the horn so long and so hard it wheezes and dies.
Pine needles at the base of her windshield ignite — her car is catching on fire. “What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to die!”
Except for her three dogs panting in the sweltering back seat, she is alone. No one can hear her. But still she screams.
This is what death must have sounded like in Paradise.
At least 86 people were killed that Nov. 8 morning when the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history wiped out the Northern
California ridge town of Paradise. The thousands who frantically fled are now coming to terms with the kind of personal trauma that doesn’t fit neatly onto Christmas cards and confronting a new year where the future can look as bleak as the ruins of their homes.
In its aftermath, dozens of videos coursed through social media, each recording various stages of panic — the faithful reciting Bible verses, parents singing to their frightened children, outof-breath emergency workers with body cameras running through flames.
For some, recording these perilous moments was an act of adrenaline-fueled optimism that they would survive to replay and share their near- death experiences on video, a rolling reassurance that they outwitted death. For others, it was a moment of frantic fatalism, as though their pocket-size pieces of metal and glass could take the heat and flames better than their skin and bones and that their last moments — like a message in a bottle — would be preserved.
“I don’t know,” Fisher said in an interview this month. “I had my camera out in case this was it. They would find my phone and know what happened.”
Fisher and others who survived the flames shared their videos with this news organization and the stories behind their escapes to try to explain: What really happens when you look death in the face? Do you lose a piece of yourself? Can you truly recover? And what do you do when you’ve been given a second chance at life?
The existential questions aren’t easy to contemplate when you’re sleeping in a friend’s garage and wearing someone else’s clothes and spending hours in line at FEMA centers and making lists for insurance companies of all your lost possessions.
“I’ve lost some of my identity in this,” said Michael Ranney, who, along with his wife, Jennette, lost their home but saved a neighbor’s and recorded bits of the surreal battle on video. “It’s like a different life, starting over again.”
Manifestos of the will to live
Some of the videos recorded that morning are horror films, survival guides and full-throated manifestos of the will to live. Each offers clues to the survivors’ life stories — and how they might cope with what lies ahead.
In a strange testimony to the intersection of tragedy and technology, Californians have the unfortunate distinction of being able to offer plenty of examples. Misha Usunov of Danville recorded what he was certain were his final moments during last year’s mass shooting that killed 58 people at a Las Vegas concert. Bullets ping off the asphalt as he crouches near the bleachers. In regular reunions with survivors since, he’s learned a lot about the effects of trauma, recorded or not.
“Generally there are two ways people handle it,” he said. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and you cherish life on a level you never experienced before because you were so close to losing it. The flip side is some dwell on it and let it pull them down so hard that it consumes them.”
Even before the Camp Fire, Fisher, 49, was fragile. She recently ended a bad relationship that put a strain on the rest of her family. Her beloved brother, Larry, had died unexpectedly a decade ago in his sleep at 45. Over the years, there were times she felt so low, she wished for the same fate. Paradise felt like a prison, a place of pain, loss and unfulfilled expectations.
As she fled the house where she rented a room on Pentz Road — on the eastern edge of town where the fire first hit — she grabbed things she had clung to for comfort: her brother’s ashes, a gold nugget her grandfather panned out of nearby Butte Creek, a special Raggedy Ann doll from her childhood. She gathered up her three elderly dogs: Lucky who is blind, Sophia who is deaf, and Izzy, the schnauzer who is toothless.
Her panicked escape would go on for 25 minutes, stopping when her “empty” gas gauge pinged a warning and her car caught fire on Pearson Road, the eastwest connector to the main roads out of town. She tried to flag down someone to help, but “It was every man and woman for themselves.”
Finally, a stranger stopped — a man who emerged from the smoke in a big white Chevy Silverado truck — and opened his door.
Fisher recorded their six tender minutes of their encounter from the passenger seat of his truck, with her dogs also safe inside. In it, he is as calm as she is distraught, an interaction that would set the stage for healing.
20 seconds of horror
As the fire blew over Pearson Road, it roared onto Edgewood Lane, a side street just ahead. There, in a field behind his house, Travis Wright recorded the hellish landscape, just after he emerged from “the throat of this monster.” Where Fisher’s video is 25 minutes of fear, Wright’s is 20 seconds of horror. He shows it to people “just to give them an idea of what I was up against,” he said. But he doesn’t like to watch it for himself: “It still pretty much plays in my head.”
He simply closes his eyes and hears their screams and feels the heat.
The panoramic video he shot at 11:29 a.m. is dark but for the orange flames crackling around him. But look closely, he says, and you can see his all-terrainvehicle parked on the side of the hill. The worst part is at the end: the silhouettes of his neighbors, Paul and Suzie Ernest, burned and motionless behind a boulder. He thought they were dead. “It’s kind of messed me up,” he said. The three of them — like so many others on Edgewood Lane confronted by a dead end to the south and fire to the north — couldn’t escape in their vehicles. Neither could neighbors Michael and Jennette Ranney, who in a bold and desperate attempt to save themselves ended up saving Wright’s house — and recording part of their last stand against the firestorm.
Wright and the Ernests had fled on two ATVs. They briefly passed the Ranneys, who were on foot with two cats in carriers. There was no way Wright could fit them all on his ATV. Leaving them behind still haunts him.
Wright and the Ernests raced off to what he thought was their best hope for survival — rock outcroppings and low brush among the trails and fields behind Wright’s house.
The fire caught up, forcing them off their ATVs and behind a 6-foot boulder. Paul covered Suzie and himself with his coat and took the brunt of the flames. Wright called his wife, Carole, who was stuck in gridlock near her Paradise dental office. “I told her I loved her,” Wright said, “and we said our goodbyes.” Then it struck. “It was right on me,” Wright said. “I could hear it. It was like a blizzard, a jet engine all at once, just loud, mostly the air whipping around, like a vacuum sucking the air out of my lungs, forcing me to exhale. It was so not natural.”
As the fire rolled over, Wright heard the Ernests scream. He leaped up and jumped through the flames to the other side. An image of 9/11 flashed in his head — of the people jumping out the windows of the World Trade Center towers, come what may.
After darting from one boulder to the next, he finally looked around and thought, “I’m alive.” But the Ernests had gone silent and motionless. He didn’t want to lock.
“I was afraid of what I was going to find.”
Overwhelmed by the devastation and needing to catch his breath, he decided to turn on his camera and pan the remains of the black and burning landscape. You can barely see the Ernests crouching behind the rock.
Clicking off the camera, Wright approached his friends. He heard them
“What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to die.” ... “Oh my god, don’t stop. It’s so hot. It’s so hot.” ... “These are people’s homes. Oh my god, people. I am so sorry. These homes are like (expletive), they are gone, they’re gone.”
groan, saw them stir and reached for Paul’s hand. The skin slid off.
He cooled them with ice packs from their cooler, then promised to return with help.
“They didn’t want me to leave,” he said. “Suzie kept saying, ‘ Please come back.’ ”
That haunts him, too. An hour later, he returned with two firefighters on the back of his ATV. They carried the couple gently, Wright said, cradling them like babies.
Pistol against an enemy brigade
Back at Wright’s house, Michael and Jennette Ranney were shielding themselves from the swirling inferno on the back of the house, built with fire-resistant cement siding. For 1 minute and 33 seconds, Jennette records the amazingly clear-headed operation that saved the Wrights’ house. Their own house had already burned to the ground.
They already had survived one neardeath moment at the bottom of the hill, when the flames shot three times higher than the trees and the sky rained bombs of flaming bark. A creek where they had sought refuge was only a trickle. “Are we going to die?” Jennette asked her husband.
“She was, like, ready to say a couple of Hail Marys and close her eyes,” Ranney said.
“I looked at her. I wanted to save her,” he said. “I didn’t want to die in a fire.”
In the video, Michael stands against the firestorm with a garden hose — like a pistol against an enemy brigade. Winds whipped up bonfires around the house. The cats whine in their carriers. Michael barks an order: “Can you get that fire out behind you?” The camera turns skyward as Jennette trips, falling backward. Michael pulls her up, then you hear the “stomp, stomp, stomp” of putting it out.
It was a fraction of their 90-minute stand dousing rain gutters with garden hoses and cracking off siding to pull out smoking insulation. Bedroom windows exploded in the heat.
“We weren’t trying to save a house to save a house,” Michael said later. “We were trying to save a house to save us.”
It was a feeling of triumph that didn’t last long. Everything Ranney held dear, his vintage stereo collection, historic mining claims and favorite tools were all destroyed when his own house incinerated.
They are living in a 17foot donated trailer now, with their two outdoor cats inside. For the first month, they moved it from one Chico parking lot to the next, running off thieves and seeking out showers. When they were recently rebuffed at one shelter by an ornery volunteer — who harshly demanded they wash their hands before they entered — they both broke down in tears.
“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Ranney told her. “Several of our neighbors were killed. We’ve lost everything but the clothes on our backs.’’
He couldn’t understand it. “We went from respectable citizens to fire trash. What happened?”
He has the video to remind him of his bravery, to bring back his confidence.
Wright had returned to his home, shocked that it was still standing and relieved that the Ranneys were still living. But he is still struggling with guilt — that he left the Ranneys as he sped off, and that he survived with little more than singed hair. The Ranneys feel only gratitude for Wright and his well-built house that helped protect them. But the experience also has been humbling.
They plan to move the trailer to their empty property and start again. The Wrights have offered the Ranneys their house for anything they need.
The Ernests are still recovering at UC Davis hospital in Sacramento. Their son, Jessee, said his parents owe their lives to Wright.
“He had a huge part in the fact that they even made it out alive,” he said.
Wright, a technologist who specializes in CT scans, was never one to reach out to strangers, to tell his stories. But the fire — and his new bond with the Ranneys — has seemed to strip him of his shyness.
“I kind of said, I don’t care,” Wright said. “I’m going to be more open.”
Wright has some heady emotional challenges ahead, he knows. He’s afraid to take his boots off for fear of another fire. His wife is afraid for him to leave her side. But their house is still standing — the only one left on Edgewood Lane. It’s a solid foundation for what may come. And for that, he is grateful.
A rubber band around her wrist
When Tamra Fisher sees how other Camp Fire survivors responded that day, she asks herself: “How are they so calm? Why did I scream like that?”
“I feel very weak, seeing all those people’s videos,” she says.
She used to be the kind of person to crank up the music in her car — and if she was the passenger, to stick her feet out the window. Now she’s still too scared to drive.
Her therapist told her to wear a rubber band on her wrist and snap it every time a dark thought entered her head. She snapped it so often, it stung. “It wasn’t helping.”
Her sister, Cindy Hoover, who lost her home in the fire, still wears hers. The same therapist told her to snap it every time she worried about Tamra.
Counselors are extra busy in Chico now, helping traumatized victims realize they are safe now, that the fire is behind them, that if they work on their mental health and tell their stories, post-traumatic stress might not settle in so deep.
The house Fisher shared survived, but the storage shed in the backyard with her important things was destroyed. She’s trying to look at the fire as a fresh start, that maybe the bad memories in her past were burned away in the fire.
“I feel terrible,” she said, “but I also feel cleansed.”
Thanks to the stranger in the white truck, her worst fears weren’t realized.
She reunited with him recently in the ruins of Paradise, close to where they met.
She didn’t recognize Larry Laczko at first. He wasn’t wearing the ball cap or glasses he wore when he saved her. But she recognized that voice, the one that told her to take deep breaths, that they would escape, that she would be OK. “I’m sorry,” she said, hugging him. “You’re doing just fine,” he said, the same way he did over and over that dark day.
“This is the voice. This is the voice that is so calming,” she told him. “I was so thankful for you. You were the only one who wanted to stop. You telling me your name was Larry, and I thought, OK, my brother is watching over me.” “I opened my door,” Larry said. “Trust me,” she said. “You opened more than a door for me.”
Like the town of Paradise — where power lines are being restrung and the post office and the Feather River Health Center just reopened — those who came closest to death are starting to restore their lives.
For Fisher, part of that recovery meant finding the car she abandoned — to see if there was anything left of the things she held most dear. She found it days before Christmas in a lot not far from Pearson Road, where all the metal carcasses had been towed. What had been a bright yellow VW Beetle was reduced to a burnedout heap of metal.
She leaned in and poked around. There was no sign of her Raggedy Ann. She didn’t expect to find her brother’s ashes, but she lit up when she found his ring, class of ’69, in the rim of what had been the VW’s spare tire. Then she plunged her hands back into what was left and felt something small, something hard.
Something else cherished had survived. “This is it,” she shouted, pouring bottled water over the muddy trinket, washing it clean of black goo.
Her grandfather’s gold nugget glinted in the sunshine.
Tamra Fisher, who found her car weeks after the fire, posted a chilling 25-minute-long video of her screams and curses as she escaped.
Travis Wright, right, with wife, Carole, recorded a hellish 20 seconds of video, but says he can’t watch it. “It pretty much plays in my head.”
Jennette Ranney, right, recorded one minute and 33 seconds of video of the battle she and her husband, Michael, fought to save the Wrights’ home.
Larry Laczko was the stranger in the white Silverado who rescued Fisher and her three dogs when her VW caught fire. “You were the only one who wanted to stop,” she told him later.
Tamra Fisher recorded several videos as she evacuated Paradise in her Volkswagen Beetle, the longest a 25-minute chunk with video going in and out as her phone moves around. She drives in a long line of cars toward what they all hope is safety. Fisher, driving with her three dogs, screams, cries, gasps at the hellish fire all around and begs for cars in front of her to keep moving. At one point, the frustration of Fisher and drivers around her boils over in a marathon cacophony of car horns. Eventually, pine needles at the base of Fisher’s windshield ignite and set her car ablaze, forcing her to abandon it. She catches a ride out of danger with Larry Laczko. As she rides in Laczko’s truck, they pass her VW, now aflame, far right. To see the video, go to www.mercurynews.com.
Michael and Jennette Ranney, left, lost their home but saved the house of their neighbors, Carole and Travis Wright. The couples reunited this month.
Eighty-six crosses are installed along Skyway Road in Paradise, one for each life lost in the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.
Despite everything lost, Tamra Fisher found her grandfather’s gold nugget buried inside the wreckage of her burned out car.
Paul and Suzie Ernest are recovering at the UC Davis hospital from severe burns after trying to escape the blaze on an all-terrain vehicle.
Cindy Hoover, left, and her sister, Tamra Fisher, returned to see the devastation. They each wore a rubber band to snap every time they had a worry or dark thought.
In video shot by Jennette Ranney, Michael Ranney wields a hose in a last bid to save the Wrights’ house.