News

No time for fear

Lydia Johnson | Feb 08, 2019

Flames engulf a structure and vehicle during the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

Laura Eilerts thought the evacuation from her home in Paradise, California, on November 8, 2018, would be routine.

On that day, the now infamous Camp Fire had started to consume California land in Butte County, where she lived. Officials had regularly stressed that dry conditions put the city's lush landscape at risk for a large fire. Still, 91-year-old Eilerts, a member of the Greater Chico Kiwanis Club, didn't consider recent warnings a real threat.

“I had evacuated twice before (in other possible fire situations),” she explains, “and nothing happened.”

Laura Eilerts So when paramedics arrived, she turned them away, assuring them that a family friend from Chico was coming to evacuate her. That ride fell through, however, as fire blocked streets leading to Paradise. And having told the paramedics that she already had transportation, Eilerts was now at the bottom of their evacuation list.

Left with no other option, she decided to drive herself, even though she hadn’t driven in months and she had a lung condition that made mobility difficult and unaided breathing impossible. She packed medications and, with a neighbor’s help, added her oxygen concentrator and oxygen tanks to her car.

By the time she reached the corner on her street, flames had started to engulf her neighborhood. The sheer number of drivers on the traffic ahead gave her a wake-up call. Driving conditions were impaired by fire and strong winds. Through the heavy smoke, she could see only the taillights of the car in front of her.

“I was aware of all that, but I didn’t take the time to get scared,” Eilerts says. 

The caravan snaked through Paradise in search of an exit, often detoured by abandoned cars and fire that blocked lanes. Along the way, Eilerts’ oxygen tank ran out. A fresh bottle waited in the back seat, but she couldn’t reach it. A female evacuee in a nearby car somehow recognized Eilerts’ distress. The driver hopped out of her car, quickly replaced the tank and jumped back into her own vehicle, all without saying a word. 

After more than five hours, Eilerts finally made it to friends in Chico, a drive that normally took only 20 minutes. She was one of 52,000 evacuees who came to the town to escape what would become California’s most destructive wildfire to date.

“Her spirit carried her all the way,” says Alice Tollefson, president of the Greater Chico Kiwanis Club. “It’s just tremendously amazing what she did.” 

Chico residents have rallied around evacuees and provided donations, clothing and shelter. Eilerts, who lost her home in the fire, has moved to an assisted living facility in San Jose. The longtime Kiwanian is grateful for the kindness that people continue to show her. 

“People are beautiful,” Eilerts says. “They really care when you're the one who's down.”

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