For 13 years, Pasadena Police Dispatcher Rachel Johnson has understood how to handle a critical call.
But on Thursday, November 8, just a few hours after she arrived home from her graveyard shift at the Pasadena Police Department, Johnson received a text from a friend in Sacramento.
“Is your Dad OK?”
She called her friend, turned on the television and went onto all of her usual social media channels, and there she saw it – a deadly fire called the “Camp Fire” had engulfed her childhood hometown of Paradise, California and there was nothing left.
Immediately Johnson called her dad on his cell phone but couldn’t get through.
“All I felt was panic. Just panic. I couldn’t find my dad. He’s disabled, drives a little car … he can’t run. I was watching everything on television and social media and I could see it all. The softball-size embers, the town completely engulfed. I have never seen something like this,” Johnson said.
Johnson began to call childhood friends who still lived close to Paradise and who may have insight on where she could start looking for her dad, Steve Perkins, and her stepmom, Luz.
Steve and Luz lived in the Pine Grove Mobile Home Park in Paradise. Johnson had found pictures online that showed the community had been completely lost in the fire.
In a hopeful hunch, Johnson called her father at his work in Chico, a 45-mile drive from Paradise. He only works part-time and goes in just a few days a week, but on that Thursday morning she was relieved to find him there and unaware of the severity of the fire that had broken out at home. Perkins had left home at 5:30 a.m. that day, and didn’t realize that just an hour later his wife, Luz, would be awakened by propane tanks exploding in the mobile home park where they lived.
Luz would later flee their mountain town with a friend who picked her up as she made her way out of Paradise and the place they called home for decades.
“He’s really lucky in many ways because he didn’t have to go through the horrifying experience of trying to escape. I don’t know if he would have made it. He has a rare muscular disease that would have made it impossible for him to run, which a lot of people ended up doing,” Johnson said. “There’s one lane in and out of Paradise and unless you had a full tank of gas, to wait it out, a lot of people just started running.”
Johnson’s dad found room in a shelter in Chico and his wife, Luz, is in Oroville. Johnson is trying to reunite them so they can take care of one another during this harrowing time. The shelters in both Chico and Oroville are filled to capacity with the 38,000 or so residents from Paradise who fled from the fires.
For Johnson, her dad is still hopeful that he can eventually drive to Paradise to look for family heirlooms and sentimental mementos, including his father’s World War II plaque and a children’s book he was writing.
“I am not sure he is able to process everything yet,” Johnson said. “I send him pictures and try to tell him that it’s gone. I keep hoping it will register for him.”
She is going to Chico to see her father and Luz for Thanksgiving with the hopes she can help get them settled into a new living arrangement so they can begin the slow and painful process of rebuilding their lives.
For 38-year-old Johnson, her childhood in Paradise is remembered with sweet fondness. Summers spent running around the safe mountain town where friends went swimming and were surrounded by a canopy of trees.
Johnson has set up a Go Fund Me page with the hope of raising money to assist her family in re-establishing residency and supplying fundamental needs to sustain them through the holidays. If you’d like to help, please click on the Go Fund Me link below.