Dick and Carol Stein loaded up a moving van and trailer in mid-October and drove away from their Laguna Beach home of 54 years, headed to a community in Northern California that Carol called “peaceful.”
Three weeks later, the couple were fleeing the Camp fire, which consumed their new house in Paradise.
“We left a very beautiful home that my husband had done so much personal work on, and that was heartbreaking. And then now, everything that we’ve ever gathered together through our 66 years [of marriage] is gone too,” said Carol, 83.
The couple and their daughter Linda — their live-in caregiver for several years — uprooted from Laguna on Oct. 18 to move closer to the couple’s grandson and his family in Chico.
Family photos, genealogical records that Carol had collected, nine bicycles and medals from Dick’s road-racing years — all of it went into the moving truck.
But on Nov. 8, “all their nostalgic, wonderful memories — gone,” said the couple’s youngest daughter, Susan.
The morning the Camp fire alighted on the eastern edge of Paradise and began roaring across more than 150,000 acres of Butte County, the Stein family was unaware of the coming danger.
Linda was at a bocce tournament in Reno with Susan, a legal secretary in Irvine. Their parents were tinkering in their new kitchen, where Dick, 85, was installing a faucet.
Carol’s phone rang with an urgent message from Matthew Schneider, their grandson. His wife had received an alert on her phone that the east side of Paradise was being evacuated. The Steins prepared to leave their home in west Paradise.
Dick began gathering clothes. Carol took cat treats into the bedroom, trying to coax their two 9-year-old cats out from under the bed and into carriers.
Within 15 minutes, flames began tearing down their street at 50 mph.
“They were gigantic — I’d say 30 to 40 feet high. Just one solid mass of fire,” Carol said. “The fire moved so quickly into our area … we didn’t know if we were going to escape it.”
With a few clothes, Carol’s ruby necklace and the ashes of her recently deceased nephew in hand, the couple loaded up their car again, this time to leave Paradise. The trees across the street were in flames as they left.
“My biggest concern most of the time was having to leave my cats behind,” Carol said. “That was really hard on me.”
The cats’ fate is unclear.
The Steins headed to their grandson’s home, joining what Carol called a “mass exodus” from Paradise.
At the bocce tournament in Reno, Susan received a call from her mother saying they were evacuating. Skyway, the only road out of Paradise still open, had been turned from two lanes to four, yet they were stuck in traffic. The air was so thick with smoke that they had to blindly follow the taillights of a truck in front of them. And they had no water.
Then the phone cut off.
“We were just dumbfounded, really. Just didn’t know what to do,” Susan said. “We were just hopeful we would get another call.”
Susan and Linda pored over news channels, trying to find updates about the fire. They saw stories about people abandoning their vehicles to run from the flames. The Camp fire would become California’s deadliest wildfire, killing about 85 people and wiping out nearly 19,000 buildings.
An hour after Carol’s call cut off, she called back.
“What a great relief that was, just to hear their voices,” Susan said. “And then to hear their story, [it] was just amazing that they made it out.”
Dick and Carol arrived at the Schneiders’ home in Chico later that day, but they weren’t safe for long. That evening, Chico was evacuating. Dick and Carol got into their car and, for the second time that day, fled the Camp fire. This time, they drove toward Reno, where they finally reached safety.
For two weeks, the couple stayed at a Reno hotel with Susan and Linda. The daughters spent every day with their parents, filing for emergency insurance funding, setting up a post office box to receive paperwork and, as Susan said, helping them “[get] their balance back.”
“They come from very hardy stock, I guess, because they are really resilient and just staying positive and [putting] one foot in front of the other,” Susan said. “They are really strong people.”
After a week staying with various family members, Dick, Carol and Linda left Wednesday for Oregon, where the couple’s third daughter, Catherine, lives. They are searching for a place to lease in Northern California. They still hope to live close to their grandson’s family, whose home survived the fire.
“We really, truly feel lucky to be alive,” Carol said. “That in itself is enough to keep us going.”