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Refugees from Paradise: 'It was hysteria'

Two of the Rogue Valley’s newest residents, Cameron Ray and his mother, Deborah Jones, are survivors. They awoke Nov. 9, in Paradise, California, with family urgently calling and texting about a fast-approaching fire. Get out, they said.

But stuck in black-as-night smoke and surrounded by wind-whipped flames, they almost didn’t make it.

They’d been evacuated many times before, so at first, neither took it that seriously. Ray, 32, said they’d likely be back in an hour or two. The sky at that time was sunny blue, and the smoke, a common sight in the region, didn’t seem to be approaching that fast.

Jones took a shower. Ray had a broken foot and couldn’t drive his stick-shift truck. His brother called, offering a ride out of town. He said OK. His landlady banged on his window and screamed, “You have to leave!” Ray looked outside, through thick pines. The sun was turning orange in the smoke.

From her Phoenix home, Ray’s sister Sarah Collins saw the cataclysm starting to unfold on her Action News app for Chico, and kept calling. Soon, her mom was on the phone, crying and praying. The edge of town was 3 miles away. Then phone service went down for an hour and a half, Collins said, adding to the panic.

“I grabbed some of my stuff,” says Jones. “I drove to Skyway (the main road out of town). It was gridlocked, moving slightly, but no one would let me on the road. Fire was all around us. Flaming pine cones were raining down everywhere. It was black as night.

“I saw the Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s on fire. Propane tanks were exploding. That was the scary part, because it meant another house was gone. You were just stuck in four lanes of traffic, all headed out of town, but not moving. You could only see as far as the taillights ahead of you. It took four hours to get out.”

Ray lived close to the edge of town nearest to Chico, on the far side from the approaching fire, but traffic was still a crawl. “After half an hour, it got really scary. The whole car got hot, like you’re in an oven. It was surreal cars were coming against us, trying to go back and rescue pets or family, but it was the only road out. People were driving crazy, weaving through traffic, driving on bike paths, yards, freaking out, running. Phone poles were falling. It was hysteria.”

Looking back, Ray says his emotions came in stages: “Denial, we’re gonna be fine. Then get out. Then realizing how terrible it is. I couldn’t accept what was going on. It was unreal for me. I kept worrying about everyone else.”

Many seemed frozen on the spot, says Jones, with “emergency vehicles just sitting in parking lots, some people standing there, dogs on a leash, watching downtown burn. You realize, wow, the fire is right here in town. It was like a war zone.”

They lost everything, including the home they built and improved over the years, and which Jones lived in. A drone photo showed it’s now a pile of ashes. They’re eager to go back, when permitted, to comb over the ashes for keepsake jewelry, stones painted with pictures by grandpa, handprints in cement “and other treasures and, believe me, they will be treasures,” said Jones.

But grandma’s antique hutch is gone, as are the Civil War records of a great-grandfather. Thanks to modern phones and computers, most ancestral photos are saved.

No one they know died, and they’re thankful for that. But Ray confesses to “survivor’s guilt,” a mix of gratitude for life and vague shame that others didn’t make it. They are especially sorry for older folks who built lives and homes there for decades and are too old to start over; some are in nursing homes or even in tents.

“We’ll be OK,” said Jones, who now lives with her daughter in Phoenix. “You have to allow time to mourn. I cried for days, over and over, hugging and crying.”

But, says Collins, she’s careful not to diminish the “sadness, loss and trauma” by tossing off cliches such as “look on the bright side” and “be grateful you’re alive.”

Ray, who has been given three months’ shelter by Linda Reppond at her Carlisle Garden Suites in Ashland, says, “Everyone has their process of healing to go through. I’ve held onto something grandpa said, that someone has to not cry, but stay strong for the family. Keep your composure while others grieve. Don’t be a burden.”

In that spirit, Ray has composed and recorded a song, one of dozens he’s posted on YouTube, called “Paradise Strong.”

A restaurant worker, Ray says he’s fallen in love with Ashland and plans to make a life here.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Paradise fire refugees Cameron Ray, left, and Deborah Jones, center, embrace family member Sarah Collins of Phoenix. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch