Sit down with a Camp Fire survivor


What remains of Victoria Militar-Tweedie and Bill Tweedie’s home in Paradise. Photo credit: Gage Northcutt

The Morning Of…

No one would have imagined an inferno could swallow an entire community in a matter of hours. Yet, on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, that very thing happened to Paradise.

Chico State’s employee Victoria Militar-Tweedie Camp Fire story is unique. For that morning she had called out of work to be able to go to some doctor’s appointments for her and her husband, Bill Tweedie. The morning was going just like any other until she received a phone call from her husband’s doctor that the appointment was canceled due to the fire being close to the doctor’s house.

Militar-Tweedie responded in confusion, “What fire?”

The doctor replied, “Look out the window.”

“We weren’t worried,” Militar-Tweedie said. “In paradise, you know you get fires like what? Four times a year at least? We turned on the TV and readied our go-bag… We know the drill.”

Militar-Tweedie and her husband never had an order to evacuate. They watched TV for updates until the power went out. After the power went, they grabbed their dog and whatever they could carry and left.

“The skies were getting darker,” Militar-Tweedie said. “So we kind of thought it was time to go.”

Militar-Tweedie’s family’s evacuation went fairly smoothly due to her home being farther from the fire than most parts on Paradise.

But it was not far enough.

The Mourning Of…

In the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, Militar-Tweedie and her husband received confirmation that their house had perished in the fire.

While grief-stricken, still she has not had more than a few moments to actually feel the complete weight of her loss.

“Maybe it will weigh more later. Because right now the focus is to stabilize your life, and that means finding another house to stay in.” Militar-Tweedie said.

One of the few times Militar-Tweedie had any time to grieve was when she and her husband went to go look at the house and former neighborhood.

“We saw the pictures. But, there is nothing like seeing it first hand… I think saddest also was because we lived in a cul-de-sac,” Militar-Tweedie said. “Not one house was left standing on the cul-de-sac and it was sad to see because our neighbors were there at the same time too…”

This only added to the tragedy for Militar-Tweedie.

She said, “To me, it was more sad than losing our house because it felt like you lost your community.”

The Fight for Normalcy…

Since then Militar-Tweedie has attempted to place together the remnants of her life cohesively. The couple had stayed in a hotel for 22 days while trying to find a rental in Chico. They had to have a place that would accommodate them, and their big dog, which made it even more difficult to find housing in Chico.

Eventually, they found a trailer with the help of other staff members at Chico State. that would allow Militar-Tweedie to stay close to her job at the university.

“The focus right now,” Militar-Tweedie said. “[Is] we don’t want to dwell on what we lost right now because if we do that we will not be able to do anything anymore. So we need to start somewhere again.”

Despite it almost feeling like too much at times and having every right to give up and feel sorry for herself Militar-Tweedie says she can not afford to. For her, when everything you know is gone and behind you, the only direction to move is forward.

Staying Accountable…

Militar-Tweedie is using Facebook as a means of updating their family and friends while also having something to keep them accountable with getting things done.

“It would somehow keep me in check from feeling sorry for myself… Because I could not let my friends or family feel that I’m giving up… I used Facebook to make me accountable to my family and friends. Accountable for soldiering on.” Militar-Tweedie said.

Soldiering on and making sure to find something to say because to Militar-Tweedie, “They are waiting for my update… and I don’t want them to pity me.”

What’s Next?

Militar-Tweedie and her husband want to rebuild but can’t make any definitive decisions. It is still uncertain when the water will be drinkable, when it will be clear to rebuild, or if any refugees will be able to afford to come back.

“Rebuilding Paradise, it’ll depend on when. How? We don’t know,” Militar-Tweedie said.

My Thoughts

Survivors like Victoria Militar-Tweedie, Bill Tweedie, their neighbors and the others in the Paradise community fight every day to return to a state of order. While this is just the story of two people and a set dog, one story can speak volumes for the thousands that are displaced.

It seems like many have forgotten that the lives and struggles of these people continue despite no more smoke in the sky. Militar-Tweedie works in the BMU every day, all while still trying to find a home with her husband.

The people who are still affected by the Camp Fire are our neighbors, family, friends, classmates, colleagues and should not be forgotten about. There are a lot of people who are gone, some forever, and the way we honor them is by not forgetting.

Even with it being nearly five months since the fire at the time of this report, the debris is still not even close to being cleared. To mend a wound you first have clean it out.

The hazardous debris has been removed and phase one of the cleanups is near complete. However, phase two of the debris clearing which will finally include property is far from it. Less than 19 percent of parcels are complete and less than one percent of parcels have been deemed completely clear. While the plan is there, the execution is still taking a lot of time to manage.

According to the Paradise Irrigation District, “approximately 40% of the tested service lines (the small pipes that deliver water from the mainline to the meter) show signs of organic chemical contamination.” It is advised that no water is safe and all water for ingesting should come from bottled water alone. No other updates have been made in the last month.

It’s a very long and arduous road ahead. But we will not atrophy and give way to hardship. We are responsible to make everyday count. Facebook updates or not.

The fire is out but not gone. Nevertheless, hold steadfast, our community and its support will never be extinguished.

Gage Northcutt can be reached at [email protected] or @GageNorthcutt on Twitter.