‘A blizzard of ash.’ Oakdale native recounts her flight from Camp Fire

She fled Camp Fire to family in Modesto

Oakdale native Cassie Ford escaped fire in Paradise and is staying with her sister in Modesto.
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Oakdale native Cassie Ford escaped fire in Paradise and is staying with her sister in Modesto.

Last Thursday morning, Cassie Ford walked out of her cul-de-sac duplex, got in her car, turned the key and was met with a battery light showing why the engine wouldn’t turn over.

If only that had been the end of her problems that day.

From her home of four years at Buschmann Road and Del Monte Avenue in Paradise, Ford couldn’t miss particles of ash in the air and a huge, not-so-distant plume of smoke.

In that 7 o’clock hour, Ford, a 27-year-old native of Oakdale, hadn’t checked the news yet. She called her sister in Modesto, Tasha Shelby, to ask where the fire was, “because she’s always up on that kind of thing.”

Shelby couldn’t immediately find anything online. So Ford called her brother, at his home about five minutes away, for a ride to work and to drop off her nearly 5-year-old son, Bruce, at day care..

No sooner had Ford, a medical assistant, walked through the door of Adventist Health Feather River clinic where she works when her manager told employees not to panic, but to get their things and go home.

Shelby called to say the fire was in Pulga, a community several miles east of Paradise. But the situation was changing quickly. Within five minutes of Ford being home, the zone next to her was being evacuated.

“It was getting darker by the second,” she recalled Wednesday, visiting a Riverbank park with her sister and their kids. “By the time I realized that it was really serious, it was pitch black like it was midnight and the smoke was so thick.”

Her duplex neighbor said it was time to get out — the fire had jumped and two parts of town were burning. In a car loaned to her by her brother, Ford, a single mother, picked up Bruce and loaded the family cat, Oliver, some clothing and a box of important papers. They headed to her mom’s house on the other side of town.

She figured that at worst, she’d be staying with her mother, Carla Shryock, until the evacuations lifted and she was able to return home. “We have multiple fires every year and we’re used to it,” said Ford, who’s lived in Paradise since she was 16, when her mom remarried and moved there with her husband. “Usually I just humor myself and pack a few things in the car just in case. I’m sort of center of town, and the homes that burn usually are way out ... I’ve always been able to return home. I’ve never even been nervous, not really.”

This time, though, her mom and stepdad were in a mandatory evacuation zone. The electricity shortly went out, and within about half an hour, the whole family — Ford and Bruce, her mom and stepdad, her brother, Logan — were leaving Paradise. Driving out, Ford said, “it looked like a blizzard of ash and it was pitch black” except for the orange glow of flames through a nearby line of trees.

Bruce was a brave boy, helping load up the car and keeping Oliver as calm as possible. “But now he’s happy he’s at Tasha’s,” the little boy interjected, sitting with his mom at a picnic table in Silva Park.

Ford’s parents are staying in Sonora while looking for a home to rent in Chico, Durham or Gridley. Logan is staying in Stockton with another sister. None of them is likely to return to Paradise. “I think everyone is kind of traumatized,” Ford said. “We’ve talked about me moving to Sonora and I don’t know that I want to. That’s wooded, for me. I don’t know that I want to be that forested again.”

She’ll be looking for new employment as a medical assistant, a car and a place for her and Bruce — though mom-of-three Shelby said her understanding landlords aren’t pushing to get her sister and nephew out of the house right away.

Ford had no renter’s insurance, and Shelby wrote on a gofundme page she set up for her sister, “We will be applying for FEMA relief when it is approved as a disaster, but the funding will still take a while.” The sisters’ mom, Shryock, also has set up a gofundme page.

Those displaced by the Camp Fire are scattered across the state and beyond, said Ford, who knows a woman now in Florida because that’s where her closest family is. “The majority of the help is in Chico, which is amazing because a lot of people are there,” she said. “But there are people everywhere, and we all need help.”

Offering a hand up

Modesto businesses, nonprofits and community groups are helping Camp Fire victims and offering opportunities for others to give, as well.

American Red Cross representatives visited Alfred Matthews Cadillac Buick GMC on McHenry Avenue on Wednesday to accept a $25,000 donation to help fire victims. Of that, $15,000 came from employees deciding to forgo their annual Christmas holiday party and donate the funds usually spent, owner Paul Caron said. The remaining $10,000 was given by him and his wife.

Omega Pacific Insurance Solutions, which has an office in downtown Modesto, is gathering donations of food and clothing to be distributed to victims. “I’m very impressed with our community and how contributions are coming in,” agent Charles Doll said in an email Wednesday. “We are planning on sending a 50-foot tractor-trailer to Butte County on Friday morning.”

Omega Pacific also has an office in Butte County’s biggest city, Chico, and is hearing that the greatest donation needs are for nonperishable food, gift cards and all types of clothing: underwear, socks, outerwear and basics for women, men and children, Doll said. “Gently used is definitely OK for clothing,” he said.

Donation drop-off points are:

  • Omega Pacific Insurance Solutions, 1016 12th St., Modesto
  • Boyett Petroleum, 601 McHenry Ave., Modesto
  • Casey Moving Systems, 2209 Fairview Drive, Ceres

“If people are unable to deliver items, they can call my cell, 209-602-0079, or our office at 209-338-5500 and I will arrange to have it picked up,” Doll said.

Omega Pacific also has set up a gofundme.com donation account to aid Camp Fire victims. As of Wednesday morning, it was at nearly $14,000 toward its $20,000 goal. The company notes on the donation page that it will pay the gofundme fee, “therefore, 100 percent of your donations will go to those affected by the fire.”

Rotary District 5220, which includes clubs in Modesto, Ceres, Riverbank, Oakdale, Newman, Patterson, Ripon, Escalon, Sonora, Twain Harte, Manteca, Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Gustine and Los Banos, also is raising money to help fire victims. District 5220 shared a message from the Paradise Rotary that read, in part: “All of your contribution — 100 percent of it — goes to people in need, fire victims and heroic first responders who are helping us in our time of need. We will use this money to help people get back on their feet. We will provide people with gift cards so that our merchants — and their employees — can survive, too.”

In the Stanislaus County area, the district is collecting only monetary donations. Checks should be made to District 5220 Disaster Relief Corp. “Write on the check the name of the disaster you want to target, such as The Paradise Fire,” district Governor Judy Lovett wrote in an email. “Then, mail your check to Joe Cotta, 9414 Kost Road, Galt, CA 95632.”

Cleansing Hope Shower Shuttle, operated by Modesto’s What Would Jesus Do Ministries, took one of its two shuttles, Mercy, to Chico to provide free, warm showers to those in need there. Mercy, which has its own tankless water heater, is connecting to the water supply at East Avenue Church.

“It is right in the mix and Pastor Ron (Zimmer) said we are an answer to their prayers,” according to a post on Cleansing Hope’s Facebook page. “They have been housing 200 in their gymnasium and feeding hundreds as well.”

Cleansing Hope/Church in the Park Modesto founder Dean Dodd said in a text from the road Wednesday that he plans to be in Chico for a week and a half. He anticipates providing 50 showers a day, maybe more if displaced residents being housed elsewhere show up at the church.

And, of course, the American Red Cross is accepting donations to help fire victims. For information and to give, go to www.redcross.org.