‘We have to rebuild.’ Two Camp Fire survivors share their stories

Written by

Susan Fort and Natalie Carmichael live in Paradise, California. Both were able escape to the Camp Fire.

Susan’s home survived. Natalie’s did not.

In their own words, they talk about what it felt like to evacuate and what the future will look like for them and their town.

Natalie Carmichael

On evacuating
Natalie Carmichael is staying with her friend in Chico. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

 “I drove right into an inferno. I drove into walls of flames, and my friend was on the phone with me walking me through everything, and I thought I was going to die. And he just said ‘keep going,’ and he kept yelling ‘Natalie just keep going’ and I said there’s a fire on both sides of me, and my car was hot. My car was so hot. There were embers going and it’s so black, and it honestly felt like you’re going to drive off a cliff.”

On those who didn’t make it

“People were stunned. Even me, I didn’t know what to do. When I was packing up my car in the morning, I skimmed through my closet four times. I had no clue what to grab. Everything was happening so fast, like your brain just can’t… people were stopping because they didn’t know which way to go. People were thinking, ‘do we turn around? What do we do?’ I’m sure people didn’t make it. It’s just a tragedy.”

On what’s next

“If you know anything about Paradise, it’s a retirement community. It’s got a reputation of not being the classiest or the most educated place to be, you know, it’s like a mountain redneck kind of place. And a lot of people are buying up there because it’s affordable. You can get a house for a hundred thousand dollars less than Chico. And I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. At this point, I’m just trying to go day by day and I have to go to work tomorrow and I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s so much devastation. I don’t know if people are going to rebuild or not. Paradise people are strong and they’re very united and I can see the Paradise community coming together and rebuilding, but I think we’re going to have to play it out and see how it goes.”

“Just ask everyone to pray for all the families and all the people who haven’t been found yet. That’s what’s important.”


Susan Fort in Paradise before the fire. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
On what makes Paradise special

“Paradise is a lovely little mountain town with lots of character, pretty much working-class people and a lot of retirees. Some younger families have more recently started to move in. It’s in the foothills and surrounded by places to go hiking or boating in the lake. Now, it looks like a bomb zone. It’s just devastating. Everything’s gone. The trees are gone, the houses are gone. Power lines are down. The trees that are standing are charred and blackened. It’s just not the Paradise that I know.”

On her home

“Our house made it. You know, it almost makes me feel bad, like why mine and not somebody else’s? In part, it’s because our little neighborhood — there are about 50 houses — it’s on its own little ridge, so it’s probably to some degree the geography. Also, we’re slightly newer homes than most of the town and we were built with very good clearance for fire. If somebody didn’t clear their own backfield, somebody else would do it for them just so it would be fire safe. And I think that really helped.”

Susan Fort’s home, which survived the Camp Fire. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
On what’s next

I really want to get back. I don’t want to go back too soon, I’ll just be a burden. But, once I get there, life will be different. I know Paradise and we will all come together as a community. We have to. We have to rebuild. We have to frequent the businesses that are remaining. The town has got to recover. It may be a long process. I know of some of our friends who lost homes who don’t have insurance. I’m sure there are plenty others in that boat, and there may be some people who can’t afford to rebuild. But I’m really hopeful that those who can, will, and it gradually will come back. We’ve only lived there a short while and it was our dream town and we’re going to make sure that it’s a great town going forward. It has to be. I know some people say ‘oh, it’s just wiped out, it’s gone,’ but I think maybe a third or so of the structures made it. And that’s a starting point, anyway.”