Editor’s note: Anaheim PD PIO Sgt. Daron Wyatt spent two weeks working as a public information officer on the devastating Camp Fire. Behind the Badge asked Sgt. Wyatt to share his thoughts, as well as some of his photos. Here is his report:
“Just another day in paradise.”
Before Nov. 13, 2018, that was my standard response whenever anybody asked how I was doing. However, after spending two weeks working with CAL FIRE Incident Management Team 4 as a public information officer on the Camp Fire, there is no such thing as “just another day in Paradise.”
The town of Paradise was a community of nearly 30,000 people located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, just 12 miles from Chico in Butte County. The town was incorporated in 1979, has its own police department and contracts for fire and rescue services through CAL FIRE. By all accounts, the town was picturesque and something you would normally see on a postcard. Therefore, it is no surprise the town was home to a large population of retirees, including retired APD Sgt. Chet Barry.
Everything changed for the town of Paradise, as well as several other Butte County communities, early Nov. 8, 2018, with the start of the Camp Fire. Now officially the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history and the deadliest disaster in California since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the fire spread quickly, fueled by high winds, drastically low humidity, and topography.
That same day, the Hill and Woolsey fires started in Ventura County, affecting the availability of resources for the three fires.
By the time I arrived at the base camp, housed at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, the fire had ravaged more than 125,000 acres, destroyed more than 6,000 homes, and the confirmed civilian fatalities were listed at 42. At that point, the fire was only 30 percent contained.
I was assigned to liaison between the Incident Management Team PIOs and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office to facilitate the flow and release of information. As such, I was working in a trailer alongside personnel from the Paradise PD, Butte County Sheriff’s Office, and California Highway Patrol, among several other agencies. It did not take long to learn that many of these public servants were victims of the destruction. Several of them had their homes, and all their belongings, destroyed in the first several hours of the fire.
Yet, they were still working tirelessly 16 to 20 hours a day to serve the citizens of their communities. Several were already at work when the fire was reported, or responded immediately with the first calls for help. They left with the clothes on their backs and nothing else. Still, they continued to put the needs of their communities before their own personal needs. Finally, one week in, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea had to order more than 30 sheriff’s employees to take a day off to take care of their personal affairs.
Never once did I hear a complaint. Rather, the consistent theme was these professionals bending over backwards to help others in need. Take, for example, a woman whose father’s cremated remains were left behind as the evacuations were occurring. She pleaded for entry into the evacuation zones, but National Guard troops repeatedly denied her access for safety reasons.
A sergeant from Paradise PD learned of her plight and personally recovered her father’s ashes and returned them to her. She came to the ICP to thank the sergeant and she hugged him so tight with tears streaming down her cheeks that everyone else in the area could not help but cry, too; her gratitude was so intense.
There was a photographer whose work was all stored on hard drives in an area under evacuation, but not yet burned.
Many of the photographs were wedding and family photographs taken at an iconic local bridge that had survived previous fires, but now was destroyed. An engineer from one of the assisting fire agencies arranged to meet the photographer and recover her hard drives. With almost 6,000 firefighting personnel and an additional 1,000 search and rescue workers, the stories of compassion and outright heroism were too many to count.
It would have been difficult not to see images from the devastation as it played on television screens across the world throughout the month of November, but the pictures did not do justice to the true scope and magnitude of the situation. It truly was not until you stood in the middle of it that you could start to comprehend how bad things really were.
Driving or walking through Paradise was completely surreal. Here was a town with a population slightly larger than the city of Seal Beach that was for all intents and purposes obliterated off the face of the earth. I visited Paradise three times during my two-week deployment and had the unfortunate task of notifying Sgt. Barry that his home was destroyed.
On each visit, I felt a deeper sense of the commitment of each and every person involved in the operation to do everything they could to help those whose lives were so drastically impacted by this tragedy.
People and organizations from around the country began offering assistance. Patagonia provided clothing to the first responders and their families who lost everything in the fire (they did the same after the Thomas Fire in 2017). Global Empowerment Mission distributed hundreds of gift cards to evacuees, and provided blankets and truckloads of supplies to the shelters. World Central Kitchen provided meals to evacuees and first responders, including Thanksgiving dinners served at California State University at Chico.
Our own Anaheim PD Vice Detail jumped in to help. Sgt. Mike Lynch called me after his wife read an article about the need for generators in the fire zones. The Vice Detail was aware of several generators in excellent condition that they had seized from illegal marijuana operations and the cases were dispositioned.
Sgt. Lynch asked if there was a need for generators at the Camp Fire. Paradise PD said they could use the generators to power their repeaters to start rebuilding infrastructure and restore communications for the police department. Sgt. Lynch and Senior Property and Evidence Technician Nicole Rapp spent their Thanksgiving Day walking the approvals through the chain of command to release the generators.
The next day, Sgt. Lynch and his crew rented a truck and made the 10-plus hour drive through a storm to Paradise where the generators were immediately put to work. Paradise PD’s chief summed it up succinctly: “Sweet!” was all he could say.
Last but not least was the work by Ken Grossman and his team at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Sierra Nevada opened its Chico brewery on Thanksgiving Day and hosted evacuees all day from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m., serving up a feast fit for a king. Many members of the Incident Management Team spent their Thanksgiving volunteering for shifts at the brewery. Many of us felt deeply connected to the Butte County communities and wanted to show them we cared.
In addition to the Thanksgiving feast, Sierra Nevada created a special brew to raise money for the Camp Fire recovery efforts. Grossman called out to brewers across the U.S. to brew the same beer and donate the sales to the relief fund. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Grossman and he proudly told me that within two days, over 500 breweries had committed and the expectation was to raise over $5 million.
Resilience – Butte County Proud IPA debuted on Dec. 20 with all sales going to the relief fund. As reported by Ben Keen in Beer Advocate on Dec. 21, 2018, over 1,500 breweries are now on board with an anticipated $15 million to be raised.
By the time the fire was fully contained a few days after Thanksgiving, 153,336 acres had been scorched, more than 18,000 structures had been destroyed (over 75 percent residential), and the confirmed fatalities were at 84.
It will take years, maybe even decades for Paradise to recover fully, but after working alongside some of the most dedicated public safety professionals I have ever met, I have no doubt recovery will occur.