A dog, a horse and two lucky survivors


Dominique Wood

Food being handed out to the evacuees.

The breeze cast a chill over the American Red Cross evacuation center. The registration tent offered much appreciated heat. Despite the cheery first glance at volunteers, real heartbreak and despair filled the air.

Every evacuee I talked to described the same situation, not nearly enough time, a black sky and no where to go.

The roads were congested with gridlock conditions. How was the fire able to move so fast and catch an entire town off guard? It caused people and their homes to burn up. The Camp Fire, and its conditions, were an unacceptable oversight on someones part. But who that ultimately is won’t be known for months to come.

Yet, through everything, the kindness of volunteers and the many services offered still helps to comfort the evacuees at the Silver Dollar Campgrounds American Red Cross shelter.

Evacuees are referred to as clients at the center. Their needs are met when they ask. Snacks are available throughout the day.

A “client” from Paradise who’s trailer burned down in the Camp Fire, Holly Hamilton, is sitting in the cafeteria waiting for dinner. Her five-year-old son, ‘Bobby,’ sleeps next to her in a stroller.

Volunteers serve dinner to clients at the shelter. Photo credit: Dominique Wood

Bobby has Autism, but Hamilton said his transition at the center has been alright.

Hamilton saved several lives at the trailer park she called home. As soon as she got the evacuation notice, she opened her door and started yelling for everyone to get their butts outta there.

Her son was in school when she was evacuated. Her father came up to get her. As she was getting ready to leave, Hamilton began hearing ash fall.

“When the ash started dropping it sounded like rain in the trees” Hamilton said, “that’s how hard it was coming down.”

As her father rushed down the road to get them out, they got stuck in traffic. After at least an hour and a half, they took Hollywood Boulevard and went around to get out of the area.

The flames jumped to the other side of the road behind them. With flames 15 feet away, Hamilton said she had never seen her father so close to tears.

She describes ash and embers about two-inches in diameter falling from the blackened sky.

Once she was reunited with her son, “All I did was give him kisses and hugs,” Hamilton said.

Another “client,” Brandi Cloutier, who is rooming with her sweet 6-year-old pup, Boss, said her journey out of Paradise was a war zone.

Paradise is her self described stomping grounds, she went to high school there and her 15-year-old daughter was born there.

“I’ve lived a lot of places, but always returned to Paradise.” Cloutier said.

Her dog woke her up by licking her face and pawing at her. She finally arose and went outside to be greeted by the dark, smokey sky.

The fire was already there, she didn’t have time to grab anything but her grandmother’s ring, which by luck happened to be sitting out.

She jumped into a neighbor’s car, with Boss. Gridlock traffic was clear down the road. She couldn’t see anything above her but black smoke. They ‘off-roaded.’

Around the car there were people running, all while there were explosions about every minute.

A tire on the vehicle that she was in popped because of the heat from the fire, she described it as sounding like a gun firing. They got out of the car and ran in opposite directions.

“The propane tanks were consistently bursting around me, everyone was afraid of the propane tanks, I was getting hit by the shrapnel, it felt like a war zone.”

She found a friend and got into their car. The image she can not get out of her head is of a horse running by who’s tail had just been caught on fire. She begins crying, describing further, if she were to make a movie of all this, that would be the cover.

“You know, I know this fire is on purpose. I know it like I know the sky is blue.” Cloutier said, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist and I am an educated women and there are just things that don’t add up.”

A friend of her’s went up three days later and counted 17 bodies on the side of the road.

Cloutier said she wants to just go home, but there is no home to go back to. She said she no longer has the option to live in her hometown, but she is very proud to be from Paradise.

Images of rescued cats are featured on the wall for evacuees to look at and identify if they are their pets. Photo credit: Dominique Wood

While she lost her home and many possessions in the fire, including the last jewelry item her first husband gave her before he passed.

“But, I have me and I have my dog,” Cloutier said, “And my daughter and my mother are safe.”

She said she now knows why God created shock.

A man who recognized Cloutier, bumped elbows with her (a more hygienic greeting as apposed to shaking hands).

“All we don’t need for Christmas is the Norovirus,” said the man, while laughing and walking away.

Humor and laughter is still present in their lives proves that there is so much hope and the people who have had to evacuate are incredibly strong. Let us rally around them and may we all be “Butte Strong.”

Rachael Bayuk can be reached at [email protected] or @BayukRachael on Twitter.