Banks Fire District volunteers recall deadly California wildfire

Banks – Last fall, in the middle of an otherwise nondescript November 8 in northwest Oregon, four firefighters from the Banks Fire District, Chris Lanter, a training duty officer, Julie Kemper, an engineer, Jonah Singler, a volunteer EMT, and Samantha Linz, a firefighter and EMT, headed south on Interstate-5 to help battle the Camp Fire in northern California along with a coordinated Oregon strike team.

By this time the fire, being called the most destructive and deadliest in California’s history, and the deadliest in the U.S. since 1918, already wiped the town of Paradise off the map, killing at least 85 people and burning 150,000 acres before it was contained on Nov. 21. The fire destroyed an estimated 14,000 homes in Paradise, population 29,000.

Heading toward Paradise, Lanter said the four Banks firefighters tried to relax and preserve their energy for whatever they were about to step into.

“We weren’t too chatty,” he said. “We weren’t exceptionally quiet, but there was a lot of unknown. We got an update from the strike team telling us what was happening down there about every 30 minutes that day and night, and I remember listening to a lot of news on the way down about the destruction caused by the fire everywhere. Most of the time we just listened to country music, more of a general music mix — nothing exciting. We talked a little and whoever were the two in the back slept as best they could while we drove down.”

The four Banks Firefighters arrived about 9:30 p.m. at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, Calif., just to the southwest of Paradise, and the operations base for all firefighters. The team was assigned 24-hour shifts — 24 on, 24 off — and ordered to conduct search and rescue missions across Paradise because by that time the fire no longer burned there.

“From the base camp it took about a 15-minute drive to Paradise before what I was seeing was mind-blowing,” Linz said. “I can’t really describe how bad it was to see people who lost so much. I can clearly remember thinking that because everything was pretty much burned it was overwhelming.”

Kemper said on the team’s first foray into Paradise, she looked around the town, or rather what was left of it, and remembers seeing a lot of building foundations with nothing above them.

“I went around a corner where one house was standing and I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was still there when everything else was just … gone,” she said.

In between search and rescue shifts, the Banks team would drive into Chico to pick up supplies and personal items. They passed hundreds of people living in tents, and people parked on the side of the road with a lot of items from their homes inside their vehicles. The fire moved so quickly, most of those from Paradise left town with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Kempler said.

“Later, when we were searching through the houses of one of the California fire guys, or rather he said it was his mom’s house, he found a 100-year-old piece of China that was in perfect condition,” Singler said. “The entire house was gone but some of the China was left.”

The team was in California for a total of 10 days and returned home four days before Thanksgiving. Lanter said it’s still hard to explain how surreal the atmosphere was in Paradise. He remembers being in a parking lot where hundreds of families were living for the time being, and how people just sort of mulled around. None of the victims talked very much, he said, other than to thank firefighters as they walked by.

“I remember it striking me there was a Jack in the Box (restaurant) still standing, but as we got closer I could see it was gutted but the walls were still standing,” Lanter said. “It was the same for all the buildings in that strip mall — gutted stores with walls still standing.”

He said the ride back to Banks in the fire engine was quieter than it was on the way down to northern California. Everyone was exhausted but excited to go home and see their families.

“I was excited to breathe fresh air and see my family and girlfriend — to hold them,” Singler said.

Banks Fire Chief Rodney Linz said he is proud of the group that went to Paradise.

“We are very proud of the group that went down and represented the Banks Fire District really well,” Chief Linz said. “Anytime we have a larger thing like this that puts life on hold for a period of time, it’s is a sacrifice to everyone (who participates in that particular mission) and everything they are used to — it’s all put on hold until they get back, and they all did.”

Singler said he still finds it hard to process everything he saw, but little things will stick with him forever, like seeing a Ford truck towing a camping trailer that had been abandoned in the middle of the road.

“I’ve only been doing this for one year, but even after that experience this is still what I want to do for my career,” he said.

Daniel Pearson

Daniel Pearson holds a bachelors in journalism and an MBA in marketing. He’s a10-time, Oregon SPJ award-winning journalist, a two-time winner of an ADDY (advertising) for copywriting, and a one-time award winner for fiction for the NW Coastal Writer’s Series. Email: Twitter: @rosecitywriting