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Fire devastates Westminster student's family

Fire devastates Westminster student's family

December 2nd, 2018 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

Kylee Heath, a freshman at Westminster College, shares her families' experience in surviving the fire that devastated Paradise, California. Of her extended family on her mother's side, only her grandparents still have a house, she said.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /Fulton Sun.


Many people watched the recent fires burn across California with pity and horror.

Kylee Heath, a freshman at Westminster College, felt all of that — plus panic. Her mother's side of the family lives in and around Paradise, California, right in the path of the deadly Camp Fire.

The blaze reached Paradise in the early morning hours of Nov. 8.

She shared the story of that day during a talk at Westminster on Wednesday.

"My mom didn't get a call until 11 a.m.," she said. "It was just my grandma saying, 'We have to pack up. We have to leave.' Then we didn't hear from her again for four hours."

In between, Heath had to wait out a three-hour class. Anxiety stretched out every minute.

"You either freak out or you just take it as it comes," she said.

It took time for news to trickle back to Missouri from California. Eventually, she learned all her family members made it out alive. She also learned how close of a race it was.

"A lot of them had to ditch their vehicles and run," Heath said.

Two family members lost cars in the blaze. Three lost businesses. Only her grandparents' house survived; other family members are temporarily living in hunting cabins.

It was chaos.

"My uncle had already headed out for work by the time the evacuation order arrived," Heath said. "He had to turn around and head for home, but when he got there, his family had already evacuated."

Heath's grandma and grandpa were also separated and had to find each other.

"The way my uncle described it if he'd known (the fire was coming) he would've taken the time to enjoy that drive to work one last time before it caught on fire," Heath said.

Even though the Camp Fire was deemed 100 percent contained, it will be a while before her family members can return to assess the damage or try to rebuild.

"The air is so polluted right now that every breath is like smoking eight cigarettes," Heath said.

Thousands of families experienced similar stress and panic. In Paradise alone, 12,000 houses were destroyed. Camp Fire killed 88, at most recent count, and caused at least $7.5 billion in damage. The Woolsey Fire, which burned concurrently, killed three while burning through Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

"I'm hearing a lot about the celebrities being affected and the towns, but not the people," Heath said.

That's why she decided to share her family's tale publicly. She hopes to raise awareness of the toll the fires took on everyday families.

She highlighted the plight of pets, as well. Thousands of animals were displaced and separated from their owners by the fires, Heath said.

"Chico Airport, in the Butte County area, is currently housing hundreds of animals," she added.

For those who want to help, Heath suggested donating to one of three charities: The United Way of Northern California, the American Red Cross (blood and money donations are both welcome) or the Del Oro Salvation Army. All three groups have been doing important work in areas devastated by the fire, she said.