‘It Was Just Raining Ashes’

December 9, 2018 GMT

PARADISE, Calif. -- Before that drive, before she saw the pictures, Raeann Rondeau thought of Paradise as the place she would retire.

Her 2,000-square-foot ranch-style house may have been nestled on an acre lot in the heart of California, but the wooded town of 26,000 called back memories of an earlier home -- one of a childhood spent in Lowell.

“It kind of reminded me of back East,” she said.

Rondeau was born in Lowell in 1967. Her grandfather owned the Sunoco Gas Station on Magnolia Street and Pawtucket Boulevard. Her great uncles worked at Gagnon Hardware. Evelyn Shea Rondeau, her mother who lived with her in the Paradise home, graduated from Lowell High School in 1957.

In 1978 -- in part due to that winter’s historic blizzard -- Raeann Rondeau’s family packed up and moved to Fairfield, California.

A few decades and moves later, Raeann Rondeau woke up sick. It was the morning of Nov. 8 and she was battling a cold.

So Rondeau called out to work for the second day in a row and spoke to her boss at the state Employment Development Department in Chico, California. He asked if it was getting bad.

“I said, ‘What’s getting bad?’ ” Rondeau said.

Earlier that morning, the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire on record, started near Pulga, a small community to the northeast of Paradise. Less than two hours later, around 8 a.m., Paradise received its first evacuation alert, preceding a devastating sweep of flames through the town.

As of last Monday, officials believe the fire killed 85 people with 11 still missing, according to media reports.

But at the time of the early-morning phone call, Rondeau said she didn’t know there was a fire in the area. Prompted by her employer’s concern, she went outdoors.

“When I went outside it was just raining ashes,” she said. Some flakes were 3 or 4 inches in circumference.

Her 80-year-old mother, who was already awake, put an overnight bag in her car and left. Rondeau said she was still at home when the first evacuation call came in around 8:45 a.m.

She signed up for this emergency notification service when she purchased the home in 2013, following eight years of owning a vacation property in the town and one year of living in Paradise full time.

The first call ordered an evacuation of a zone other than the one she lived in. Almost immediately after she hung up another call came in. It ordered the evacuation of the entire town.

“There was no time to prepare,” she said.

She grabbed a laundry basket of her own clothes, a handful of her mother’s clothes and the ashes of her father and brother. Rondeau also rounded up her two dogs, Gracie, a German shepherd-husky mix and Rylee, a black Lab.

By the time she and the dogs got into her Dodge Ram and drove away, Rondeau said the morning sky looked like midnight. She exited her secluded street and entered bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“At that time you could see the ashes falling on houses and propane tanks in the yards exploding,” she said. “At one point just sitting there -- and nobody’s moving, we’re just sitting there -- a tree branch snaps and fell on my truck.”

Fortunately, she said, the branch didn’t do any damage.

Traffic was slow even though the inbound lanes were reversed for people trying to flee the town.

Her mother called Rondeau. In the hour since Rondeau’s mother left she had only driven about two miles. She told her daughter she was thinking about turning around.

“I’m like no, don’t turn around and come home,” Rondeau said. “Nobody can come home. Everybody has to leave. Where she was she was only dealing with smoke and traffic.”

For Rondeau, getting to Chico, typically a half-hour drive or less, took three hours. As she drove, the tires of cars stuck in traffic caught on fire, she said.

In one video from the drive, building after building just yards from the road burned. On the other side of the road, a sign was on fire creating a spire of flames. The radio chattered in the background: “If you’re a homeowner your house is more than just a place you live it’s an incredibly valuable financial asset. You’ve likely acquired equity since buying your home so why not use it?”

For days, Rondeau didn’t know what became of her home. Like other residents, she was not allowed to return to Paradise, as crews cleaned up the area and searched the wreckage for the missing.

The week before the fire, Rondeau said she had gotten new hardwood and bathroom floors installed. Her mother had moved in recently and almost all her possessions were still in boxes.

“You just keep hoping that maybe (your home) made it,” Rondeau said.

The week following the fire, photos of her home were posted to a website for residents by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

The stairway to her front door survived. Otherwise her house was gone, as was the workshop with her mother’s possessions.

She does not plan to rebuild.

After getting to Chico the day of the fire, Rondeau stopped at her workplace for an hour to calm down. She then drove another three hours to her brother’s house in Loyalton, California where she stayed for weeks. Her mother is also staying with her brother, Roger Rondeau, a 1977 graduate from Greater Lowell Technical High School.

As Raeann Rondeau struggles with insurance agencies, her sister-in-law started a GoFundMe for Raeann and her mother at www.gofundme.com/lost-everything-in-camp-fire-paradise . Days before she was set to return to work after an emergency leave, Rondeau was trying, without any clear answer, to figure out how she could report to an office that is now hours from where she is staying.

“With so many people having lost their homes, all hotels and shelters are still full,” she wrote in an email last week.

Rondeau also thought back on that other place she called home, Lowell.

Though she has lived in California most of her life, she takes frequent trips back to Massachusetts to visit extended family. She takes the opportunity to pack up local favorites and ship them frozen back to California.

“Every time we went back East before 9/11 we could always go to the Chinese restaurant there and we would buy several hundred dollars in food and just pack up and freeze boxes of Chinese food and ship it out,” she said.

“My heart is still back there,” she said. “It’s just that my immediate family is here and the weather is better here.”

In 1984, when the family lived in Fairfield, California, they opened a sub shop with East Coast-style options.

“We missed the cheese steaks so much that we had our own ... sub shop so we could have the cheese steaks,” she said. “We missed the New England food.”

As she searches for a new home -- likely near her brother -- Rondeau is planning to make another change.

In her Paradise home she had sports memorabilia for “her teams,” all New England staples like the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. While her support remains strong, she said she probably won’t try to rebuild her collection.

“I had all the sports memorabilia from the 2004 World Series.” she said. “It’s like, you know, all that stuff goes up in flames so quick.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.