Couple whose home was destroyed by fire moves to Virginia

January 13, 2019

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Patti Clifford woke up unusually early on Nov. 8.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the company that provided electricity to the home she shared with her husband, Ken, in Paradise, Calif., had notified residents they might shut off power at 4 a.m. that morning because the strong, dry wind blowing up the ridge posed a fire risk.

But when Clifford woke up suddenly around 7 a.m., the power was still on.

She went outside and was struck by the dusky orange sky.

“I thought, ‘What a pretty sunrise!’” Clifford said. “Then I realized it was coming from the wrong direction.”

What she was seeing wasn’t the sunrise, but flames from a fire that originated on Camp Creek Road in Butte County, Calif. Within four hours, the fire would leave 86 people dead, torch 153,336 acres and destroy 18,804 structures — including the Cliffords’ home.

Last month, the couple — who are 73 and 74 and have been married for more than 50 years — relocated across the country to Spotsylvania County, where one of their sons lives. Couple whose house

“When I woke up that morning, I did not expect it to be the last morning I would wake up in our house,” Ken Clifford said.

California is where Patti was born, where Ken went to dental school and where the couple raised their two sons.

They’d lived in Paradise — a town with a population roughly the same as Fredericksburg’s — for eight years.

“The town no longer exists,” Ken said.

The Cliffords knew wildfires were a risk to the area. After two wildfires destroyed parts of Paradise in 2008, officials developed an evacuation plan and divided the town into evacuation zones for orderly escape.

After fires swept through last summer, Patti Clifford packed a briefcase with important documents to have ready in case they ever needed to evacuate.

But there were no evacuation warnings this time.

“It was November — usually fire season is over by then,” Patti Clifford said.

Still, conditions were ripe for a disastrous fire. There had been little rainfall over the past seven months and there was low humidity and a hot, high wind.

By the time Ken Clifford woke up soon after Patti on the day of the fire, burning embers were falling from the sky, “like thousands of fire bombs all over the town,” he said.

They threw a couple outfits into two suitcases and jumped into two cars. Patti drove in front with their cat, Hello Kitty, and Ken was behind with their dog, Miss Pink.

He’d opened the briefcase of important papers to add some more items, found they didn’t fit, carried the items to the trunk of his car and left the briefcase behind.

Even though they were hurrying to leave, they didn’t realize how bad the fire was until they turned onto Pentz Road, the main route out of town. The two-lane street was jammed with traffic, backed up for miles. Buildings were burning on either side of the street.

“It looked like Armagaeddon,” Ken Clifford said. “That’s when we realized we might not ever be going back home.”

As their cars crept along, they realized they were going to have to drive through flames to escape. They came upon a firefighter trying to prevent traffic from continuing down the road into the valley.

“That’s when Patti made the brilliant decision that she’d rather run into someone than burn to death,” Ken said.

Patti inched her car around the road block and continued on.

“I just thought, ‘There are people back there who could be burning in their cars,’” she said. “And there were. They were just trapped.”

As she drove through flames, she didn’t have time to register any feelings other than how very, very hot it was.

“You’re focusing so much you don’t feel the fear,” she said. “It didn’t kick in until later. I just started shaking — and by then, I was safe.”

The Cliffords spent seven weeks in a hotel in Chico, paid for by their insurance. It was almost an entire month before they were able to go with an insurance inspector to see what happened to their house.

It was little more than an expanse of white and gray ashes, with the charred brick chimney standing watch over the ruins.

The fire left a few odds and ends untouched, such as the old metal wheelbarrow that Patti’s father used to take her for rides in — which she’d turned into a planter — and her porcelain Nativity set.

Patti said the Nativity set had been stored in different places around the house. But she found it set up, among the ashes, as it would be for Christmas.

“We learned later that forensic teams had gone through the remains of each house searching for bodies,” she said. “Every time they found something they thought would be meaningful to the owners, they’d set it up in a place the owners would be sure to see it.”

It turned out that a “stunning” amount of Nativity sets survived the fire, Ken Clifford said.

“I say it’s because they’re fired porcelain that they survived,” he said with a laugh.

But Patti prefers to see their survival as proof of divine intervention.

“Because we went through hell and this is a reminder of something bigger,” she said.

Another miraculous survival was that of her daughter-in-law’s three horses. A friend tried to rescue them, but the fire was so bad when she arrived at the stables where they were boarded that the best she could do was open all the stalls and hope the horses would save themselves.

“They escaped and no one knew where they were,” Patti said. “Weeks later when they went back to the stable, they’d all returned — plus some.”

“Twelve escaped and 20 came back,” she said.

Though the Cliffords weren’t able to rescue anything of value from their home, it helps them to think of all the good that came out of the fire.

The town Facebook group, “Paradise Rants and Raves,” turned from a place where people bickered and complained to a space to share positive messages of hope and community.

Rescue groups from around the country and the world descended on Paradise to help save people and animals. People donated food, clothes and funds to help those affected by the fire. They made sure children without homes still got Christmas and opened their houses to give displaced people somewhere to stay.

“Something like this really brings out the good in people,” Ken Clifford said.

The Cliffords decided not to rebuild in Paradise. They were planning to move to Virginia in a few years anyway, so they decided to speed up their plans.

“Some people are planning to rebuild, but for us it was easier to move,” Ken Clifford said.

They put the few things they salvaged from the fire in the trunk of a car and drove across country with their pets. They’re renting a house in Spotsylvania now and plan to build when the lease is up.

While locals might be tired of the rain that’s fallen on Fredericksburg since the summer, the Cliffords find it relieving.

“We think, ‘Rain, cool, we’re not going to burn!’” Patti Clifford joked.

Even though they lost all their possessions to the Camp Fire, it’s people and places they say they miss the most.

Ken misses his golfing buddies and the places he walked his dog every day.

Patti misses the couple’s oldest granddaughter, Miki, who’s finishing high school in Magalia, a community near Paradise.

“We were best friends,” she said. “I was there when she was born. I’d tell her that I’d always be there for her and that it was her job to leave me for college. But I was the one who had to leave her.”

But they’re enjoying being closer to their younger grandchildren in Spotsylvania — and Miki’s family plans to move here after she graduates from high school.

“They don’t want to live through another fire,” Patti said.

“In the end, the memories aren’t gone, but the things that reminded me of the memories are gone,” she said. “I miss the things that can’t be replaced, the things I wanted to pass down to my grandkids.

“But our lives can’t be replaced, either.”


Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/

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