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 “delightful, 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. “You can imagine the adjustment we’re facing.”
Dick, Carol and their daughter Linda — their live-in caregiver for several years — uprooted from their Laguna neighborhood 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.
‘We didn’t know if we were going to escape it’
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 at the Irvine law firm Goe & Forsythe. 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 in Chico. His wife, Adele, 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 immediately.
Dick began gathering clothes. Carol took cat treats into the bedroom, trying to coax their two 9-year-old cats, Misty and Dixie, to come 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 fate of the cats is unclear.
The Steins headed to Matthew and Adele’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 still 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 call to Susan 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. Information was scarce because the Camp fire, which took over two weeks to contain, had just begun. It would become California’s deadliest wildfire, killing 88 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.”
‘One big happy family’
The Stein family story began in Laguna Beach, where Dick grew up. Carol moved to the city from San Bernardino as a senior in high school. She said the two met when her friend — Dick’s brother —encouraged her to invite Dick to a high school dance.
Dick and Carol married soon after and had three daughters: Catherine, Linda and Susan. In 1964, the family bought a home on Starlit Drive across the street from their high school best friends, Suzie and Jerry Johnson. Only four families lived on the cul-de-sac when they moved in, Suzie Johnson said, and most of the yards were dirt lots.
“They kind of pioneered the street,” said Rick Balzer, a Berkshire Hathaway Realtor who helped the Steins sell their Laguna house.
Dick began a plastering company and, according to Balzer, became the “creme de la creme” of plastering contractors around Laguna Beach.
“They were like old-school Laguna family,” said Kristine Torrance, another Berkshire Hathaway Realtor who helped the Steins sell their home. “They’re just the sweetest, nicest couple.”
The Stein and Johnson children grew up together, running back and forth between houses and playing on the street. Starlit Drive soon filled in with other families.
“We had years and years of lots of children and lots of fun on this street,” Suzie said. “It was one big happy family.”
When the Laguna Beach community heard that the Camp fire had consumed the Steins’ Paradise home, offers of help poured in. Relatives and high school friends called, emailed and sent pictures with supportive statements.
“Everybody is coming out of the woodwork,” Susan said.
Suzie and her daughter, Janet Mitchell, created a GoFundMe campaign to help the Stein family begin to rebuild their lives.
“When you get older [and] you don’t have a home base, it’s kind of hard,” Suzie said.
As of Thursday evening, the effort had raised more than $5,500.
“It’s been tremendous,” Carol said.
After a week staying with various family members, Dick, Carol and Linda left Wednesday for Oregon, where 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 in Chico survived the fire.
“We really, truly feel lucky to be alive,” Carol said. “That in itself is enough to keep us going.”