Voices From the Future | Sandee Babcock
Dark Clouds Over Paradise
The Event: In November 2018, the Camp Fire erupted in Butte County, California. The deadliest fire in the state’s history began as a brush fire, fueled by hot and dry breezes in extremely dry weather conditions. Ultimately, 85 people lost their lives, and total of 18,804 structures — homes, barns, churches, schools and a hospital — were destroyed.
Wildfires are nothing new to the residents of the tightly knit community of Paradise, California. Nestled in the foothills and canyons of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the town has long been prone to small seasonal brush and forest fires.
Sandee Babcock and her family have lived in Paradise for 50 years, but when she woke up on the morning of November 8, 2018, an unusually hot and dry wind was blowing at rates of 30 to 40 mph. Little did she know that the life she and her extended family had known was about change for good.
“I’m one of those people who likes to open all the curtains in the morning,” Babcock says. “I saw smoke over the hills. It was white, [but] I thought, ‘That’s nothing unusual.’”
But to Babcock’s surprise, that smoke was suddenly getting very dark — “like dark clouds were hanging over Paradise,”
‘I got a call from my youngest daughter, who had moved back to Paradise from Denver four months earlier,” Babcock continues. “She had dropped off her two children at school, but the school had closed because of the fire. This was very odd to her, since she grew up here. And what was even more odd, she had witnessed huge flames while driving home from school.”
A countywide evacuation order was already in full effect, and the Babcocks joined other Paradise residents in getting out of town. The challenge, though? Babcock’s husband, Roger, has Parkinson’s disease and is dependent on an oxygen tank.
“We were updated by text that the power was about to be shut off,” Babcock says.
Babcock packed clothes for few nights, some jewelry, a wallet and their copies of the Bible, and drove off on one of the four roads leading out of town, along with more than 20,000 other Paradise residents.
Although it was midday, Babcock describes the experience as if she was driving in the darkness of the deepest night.
“The road was completely engulfed in flames,” she remembers.
A drive to Chico, the closest town to Paradise, usually takes about 20 minutes. But Babcock, her husband and the elderly neighbor that they picked up were on the road for five hours to get away from the burning town.
The Babcocks made it safely to Sacramento, where they lived first in a hotel and later in an assisted-living facility. Babcock clearly remembers the moment her son-in-law informed them that their house was gone. At first, it was a relief to know what had happened, but what followed was a sense of shock and heavy grief.
The Babcocks don’t see themselves returning to Paradise soon — or maybe ever. Building and resettling in a new house would be too big of an effort at their ages. Sandee is 70, and her husband is 78.
Further, the fire also created new challenges for Paradise’s infrastructure.
“The water lines in Paradise got really bad during the fire,” Babcock says. “People who live up there now and are rebuilding must buy $6,000 water tanks and pay $250 every couple of weeks to fill them. It is going to be good five years before the town is really livable and people don’t have to worry about the toxicity there.”
The Babcocks’ youngest daughter’s house is still standing, but it’s full of toxic debris.
“They are having bitter negotiations with the insurance company, since their house requires major renovations to be livable again,” Babcock explains.
Still, she remains hopeful about the future. She believes in the healing power of passing of time, even though three of Babcock’s children lost their homes in the fire and the family church burned down. Their whole community, including their children and grandchildren, were displaced.
Babcock, though, has her faith in God, and she and her family find peace in it.
“We have to look forward and support each other,” she says. “We must tell others that they are not crazy if they have difficult feelings and emotions after the fire destroyed their lives.”
But, the impact of the Camp Fire and the losses her family has experienced since November 2018 hasn’t changed Babcock’s view on climate change.
She doesn’t believe in it.
“When I look back in history, I can see that this stuff has always happened,” Babcock says. “Early in the 1900s, the entire city of Sacramento was flooded. The Bible predicts as the time goes on that there will be more earthquakes and other disasters. God is trying to awaken his creation to the fact that He is in control and He wants people to know Him and seek Him. So, this is kind of how our family looks at it.”
There is one other lesson that Babcock gained from her devastating experience.
“The reality is that there is absolutely nothing in this world you can hold on to. All your worldly goods that you think matter and you are therefore accumulating all your life do not matter.”
— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss