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A La Crosse family survives the California Camp Fire

December 22, 2018
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Christine Poje and her daughter Maggie, 13, take a break from settling into their temporary La Crosse, Wis. apartment Nov. 26, 2018. Poje and her four children, formerly of La Crosse, were forced to evacuate their new home in Paradise, Ca. as the Camp Fire ravaged the community. (Peter Thomson/La Crosse Tribune via AP)

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — When Christine Poje’s children woke her up the morning of Nov. 8 to see the sunrise, she thought the red sky might portend rain. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.

“We could use a storm,” Poje thought, as she got up to cover the firewood with a tarp. California had only officially come out of a three-year drought last year, the La Crosse Tribune reported . Much of northern California — including the town of Paradise in Butte County where Poje and her four children had moved to from La Crosse about three months ago — was in the middle of a long dry season.

Outside, Poje could hear the sound of ash hitting the pines like rain.

It was just after 8 a.m., about 90 minutes after firefighters first responded to reports of a fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The Camp Fire, which tore through Paradise and became California’s deadliest wildfire, would leave at least 85 people dead, destroy 14,000 homes, consume 153,000 acres and burn for another 16 days before firefighters fully contained it.

At the time, however, Poje had no reason to panic. There wasn’t a mandatory evacuation on the news. A wildfire had burned through Paradise 10 years ago, taking with it many of the trees that would have served as fuel.

A few weeks earlier, the Pojes had spent $12,000 to remove trees on their property to create a 100-foot buffer between their house and the surrounding vegetation. The first thing she and her husband, Matt, had done when they bought the house was buy year-round fire insurance.

But then Poje remembered how bad the smoke had been during the Carr Fire a few months back. She called Matt, who was working in La Crosse as a behavioral health specialist at Logistics Health Inc. until he received the necessary paperwork to work remotely from California, to tell him that she was taking the kids to stay overnight with her father, who lives near Reno, Nev.

Poje told her children to pack their overnight bags. Maggie, 13, the eldest, cleaned out the car while older son, Gabriel, 12, used a leaf blower to clean pine needles off the roof. He had done it twice before.

“They did everything I told them to,” Poje said. “They were so good.”

By 9 a.m., Poje, her four children, three dogs and five puppies were on the road. Traffic was slow. By 9:30 a.m., emergency responders had blocked off the route north that Poje planned to take. And they were telling everyone to drive on both sides of the roads.

Poje found herself diverted south onto the Skyway, the only two-lane road in both directions that leads in and out of town. She drove down the middle, normally unoccupied by traffic, to open up space for the long line of cars behind her trying to get out.

Farther down Skyway, traffic on the right two lanes, which lead out of Paradise, came to a halt. Emergency lights flashed from the left-most lane, normally the way into town from Chico.

In the car, Poje’s youngest daughter, Mary, 9, sobbed. Although it was not even noon, the sky was so black it looked like midnight. To give her kids a sense of control despite their fear, Poje told them to watch for falling branches and downed power lines.

When Poje reached the fork in Skyway, she thought she heard first responders say they were closing the right-most lanes. So she veered left. There were barely any cars traveling down that way.

“It’s OK,” Poje repeatedly told her kids. “It’s OK, we’re almost out of it.”

She had no way of knowing whether that was true. All around them was fire. When the car in front suddenly braked, she wondered what it was like to burn to death.

“I just prayed ‘God, take us all quickly.’”

Then the car in front began to move again. Less than a minute later, they emerged into daylight. The children pointed at a helicopter carrying a bucket overhead. Orange flames taller than trees burned to their right.

It was a surreal feeling, realizing that the fire had already burned through their side of the road.

“We drove all the way down to Chico, and there was no one coming down the other side,” Poje said. Had she taken the right two lanes, Poje believes, she would have driven into the front of the fire as it had swept across the Skyway.

The Pojes reached her father’s house that evening. She and the kids moved into a hotel in Reno and gave up their dogs to a kennel the next day. (The Pojes kept one of the puppies and named her Pele, after the Hawaiian goddess of fire, because she had gone through fire.)

Three days later, the Pojes learned their house had burned down: family photos, keepsakes, everything. Only the chimney remained.

After five nights in the hotel, Christine and the children returned to La Crosse on a red-eye flight, where they were reunited with Matt before Thanksgiving.

To help the children process what they’ve experienced, Matt has had them draw pictures of their escape.

When we go through trauma, the experience is so vivid that the brain thinks it needs to protect itself when it is trying to file the memory, Matt said. However, memories don’t get stored properly during the fight or flight response. Having the kids draw their experiences helps them finish filing the memory even if they can’t find the words to describe what they’ve been through.

“Telling your story is the important thing,” Christine said. “What matters is we tell this story and get to the end.”

Christine said growing up in Sitka, Alaska, contributed to her clear-headedness throughout. “We were taught survival from a very young age and we were taught that attitude matters. The ‘we’re OK’ I kept telling my kids, that was me saying we’re still alive and we’re still fighting.”

“That’s why I am in La Crosse. I am safe here. I have friends here,” Christine said. “You need community to bounce back from something like this, and our community is here.”

Christine said she wants to find a way to help Paradise rebuild. She, Matt and the children plan to return in a few years.

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Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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