Jenna Lane/KCBS Radio

Burned Land Flooded With Memories In Paradise

A KCBS Radio Special Report

Jenna Lane
December 20, 2018 - 10:14 am

This is the fourth and final installment of KCBS Radio reporter Jenna Lane's series on the Camp Fire's impact on the Ernest family. Please read parts one, two and three.

PARADISE — Some Paradise residents went to incredible lengths to survive the Camp Fire, only to face an uncertain future. Six weeks later, it’s still not clear where burn victims Paul and Suzie Ernest might live as they recover, or how long it might take for their neighbors, Travis and Carole Wright, to get a good night’s sleep.

The Ernests’ deep burns have had them in and out of surgery, fighting off pneumonia and other infections, in a Sacramento hospital 100 miles from Paradise

“We've been almost wholly focused on my parents,” their son Jessee Ernest said. “So it's been hard to really grieve the family home.”

Ernest had heard that his family's home of 44 years was gone. He wanted to see it for himself, but when he arrived, he skirted the rubble of the house. Where he spent most of his time was on the land.

Jenna Lane/KCBS Radio
A gathering rain was sending flash floods down the canyons below, but up on the ridge, it was soft. The wind took a familiar path through what's left of the treetops. Ernest walked familiar ways on barren ground. He talked about the weeds that grew between his father's grapevines. One of his chores was to mow them.

“It was a horrible job, with star thistle and fox tails, everything pokes you, but there was always poppies growing down a couple rows, right down the middle, so we'd try to mow around the poppies and leave them,” he said.

Pointing to a fallen tree and a pile of ash, he said, “We had a big tree house there. I think my brother lived there for a little while when he was in high school and he wanted to move out of the house.

“That's my parents' garden,” Ernest said. “Their famous tomatoes. I might have to grab my mom's garden basket, wow.”

The tomatoes went in his parents' cooler when they were evacuating. They're saving the seeds for their next garden, wherever they might plant it.

Ernest started collecting what he wanted to save in the woven fiber basket that was damp from the rain, but untouched by the fire.

“I feel like I have to grab abalone shells, because one of us dove for all of them,” he explained. “And the basket because it's my parents' garden basket. They bring their vegetables from the garden back up to the house with this.”

“They had an incredible vegetable garden out there,” said the Ernests' neighbor, Carole Wright. It had “places for the kids to play. Jessee's tree house, that was a cool tree house! It was like a fort. They had a trail that went all the way down to the stream, the creek back there. It was a really cool place that they had.”

Losing the landscape makes returning to her property feel like a trip to the moon.

“The land is a big part of living there, all the trails, all the beauty,” she said.

Knowing the land and the trails may have saved her husband Travis' and the Ernests' lives in the Camp Fire. While the three of them rode their quads out to a rocky bluff, Carole was stuck in the evacuation traffic on Skyway, the main road out of Paradise.

“I was posting a post on Facebook, just so my parents would know what happened to me. I was pretty sure the flames were going to overtake us on Skyway,” Wright said. “Then I called Travis again and he says, ‘We're behind a rock. We were trying to outrun the flames from the north, but now they’ve surrounded us, and I don’t know what to do. I love you. Goodbye.’”

While the Ernest family is focused on Paul and Suzie's medical recovery, the Wrights are wrestling with a different kind.

“We both have a great deal of separation anxiety,” Wright said. “That day when I was driving down Skyway, I felt so helpless, I couldn’t help him. In the hotel the other morning, we were going to go down to the lobby where they have a little breakfast. He says, ‘Why don’t I just run down there and get something. I’ll bring it back up.’ And I just burst into tears. I was thinking, ‘What's the matter with me?’ But it was because I didn't want him out of my sight. That’s when bad stuff happens.”

Neither of them has truly slept since the fire, Wright said. 

“For me when I close my eyes, that's when it all comes back to life. I’m trying to run from the flames again in my car, and Travis is trying to run from them, in his mind, on his quad," she said.

But she also remembers a light at the end of a tunnel of smoke and flames. 

“I finally got to a point on Skyway where I could see a little strip of daylight on the horizon, way down the hill. I started crying when I saw that daylight,” Wright said. “My problems weren't over, but at least my immediate danger. I could see that there might be a little bit of possibility I might get out of that."

Jenna Lane/KCBS Radio

The horizon for Ernest's parents is not entirely clear.. Ernest, a general contractor like his dad, probably could help his family rebuild, but he could not say right away if they would. He sees the town of Paradise, on the other hand, charging ahead.

“The rebuilding is going to be great but bittersweet. It's not going to be the town I grew up in, funky old buildings, there was some stuff built well, some stuff was thrown together, it was just Paradise and I loved growing up there and it's not ever going to be like that anymore.”