California fire survivor reflects on fire that destroyed home one year ago
By Linda Petersen
Just after 8 a.m. on what seemed to be an average Thursday, Jackie Steele-Done woke up and went outside. Living in a small ramshackle cottage about 2 miles from town, it was part of her morning routine. She loved the crisp morning air and the scent of the old pine trees on the property. But this day underlying the pine was the smell of something else: smoke.
Steele-Done wasn’t unduly alarmed at first; the area was known for forest fires that were usually caught and extinguished. But this day, Nov. 8, 2018 in Paradise, Calif. was different. By nightfall Steele-Done and most of her neighbors would have lost everything. What turned out to be the largest fire in California history, the Camp Fire burned more than 240 square miles, including 19,000 homes, businesses and other structures, and took 85 lives.
Remembering the experience a year later, Steele-Done can still scarcely believe she wasn’t one of the casualties. Within an hour of her smelling the smoke, a neighbor came by to tell her they were being evacuated immediately. She only had time to fling a few clothes, her computer and her beloved pet Ziggy Stardust, a Triton cockatoo, and her carrier in the car, before she became part of what seemed to be an endless convoy headed away from the danger.
Living on the lower east side on the outskirts of town, she and her neighbors were closest to the fire, which acted like no fire most of them had ever seen, flaring up in unexpected places, crossing firebreaks and roads. Before she left, she had shut up the cottage as best she could and put what she thought of as the rest of her family, eight exotic birds she had gathered over 20 years, in their cages with food and water before she left. Assuming she would be back within a couple of days, she wasn’t overly concerned about her birds. Steele-Done never saw them or the little cottage in the forest again.
The Bay area native had moved to Paradise in 2010 from Salt Lake City after her mother passed away. A friend offered to rent her the small cottage on three-quarters of an acre she came to call home. She loved it there out in the woods. She was visited regularly by deer, raccoons, skunks, wild turkeys and feral cats, all of whom she loved and fed.
“It really was paradise; I was so happy to be there,” she said. “I would just drive down the street to the grocery store and thank the universe I was there.”
Before settling in Paradise, Steele-Done had retired from a career in mechanical drafting and moved to Salt Lake City to take care of her ailing mother. After her mother passed away, she could not wait to get back to California, she said.
That first day after they left their homes, authorities herded Steele-Done and her neighbors toward Skyway, one of only three roads that led out of town; the other two were on fire. But they were gridlocked as soon as they left their street. The convoy drove around the small roads for several hours, often stopped in place for long periods of time while the authorities determined the safest route to get the evacuees out. Even when a route was decided on, it often changed as the fire grew and moved, consuming everything in its path. Swirling black smoke made it impossible to see where they were or to navigate a way out.
“I just followed the car in front of me,” said Steele-Done who felt like she was protected during that time.
“God was with me; somebody was taking care of my gas because I was on empty almost the whole time; I kept looking at the gauge,” she said.
Finally, in early-afternoon she made it out of Paradise and was able to get gas at a nearby town. Her neighbors had family nearby in Lincoln and invited her to stay with them, which she did. That whole first day Steele-Done had no idea how bad the fire was and what had happened to her home. Eventually after making it out, she got a call from her daughter. “It doesn’t look good; I don’t think anything is going to be left,” she told her.
“It was awful,” Steele-Done said. “It was like the worst nightmare you could ever imagine and you just don’t think it could ever happen.”
In Lincoln, the highway patrol told them that everything had burned up in the fire and that it would be a week before anyone could go back to what was left of Paradise. Since her home and almost everything she owned was gone, Steele-Done decided not to return. Instead, she made her way to Utah, and to the waiting arms of her sister Judy Bowers in Spring City. She stayed with Bowers for several weeks while she got her feet on the ground and figured out what to do next. Bowers was able to help her get into a subsidized apartment in Mt. Pleasant, for which Steele-Done is grateful.
Although she said she has survivor’s guilt, Steele-Done feels she has been lucky. Retired and on social security, she did not experience a loss of loved ones, livelihood or income like many of the people she knew. Although she was left with just what she had thrown in her car, “the government was wonderful,” she said. “I applied with FEMA on a Saturday and on Monday I had money in the bank.” Steele-Done also received aid from the Red Cross and other organizations.
“People were amazing; that was the best part of it,” she said.
After an investigation, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded that faulty Pacific Gas & Electric electrical transmission lines caused the Camp Fire. Steele-Done is part of a lawsuit against PG&E, hoping to recoup some of her expenses, but that will never make up for her loss, she said. Paradise is gone now. The idyllic little community where everyone knew everyone else is no more and its inhabitants have been scattered to the four winds.
“We’re all part of history, but we wish we weren’t,” she said of herself and the other Paradise residents. “I would give anything to go back to my old life.”
Over the past year, Steele-Done has rebuilt her life and she and Ziggy feel reasonably settled, she said. The people are all very nice and she likes the rural nature of Mt. Pleasant, but it’s not home, she said. Although she plans to stay here, for Steele-Done it may never be. For her, Paradise is indeed lost forever.