Sleepless in Chico
Struggling with the aftereffects of covering the Camp Fire
I’ve had a pretty bad bout of insomnia since the Camp Fire. Actually, to be precise, the trouble sleeping began on Nov. 9, the day after the state’s deadliest wildfire began in remote Butte County.
That Friday is when Meredith J. Cooper and I headed up to Paradise to get a first-hand look at just a sliver of what ended up being more than 150,000 acres charred by the firestorm. We had a couple of janky masks—not the N95 variety we’ve come to associate with the toxic air quality that followed the blaze—and drove through the haze with the windows down.
Clearly, we weren’t prepared. The last time I covered a wildfire was one near Cherokee in 2004. I remember driving around that rural region alone—a paper map my only guide—and hoping the flames on the side of the road wouldn’t turn into an inferno.
Prior to that, my experience with fire was an ag burn run amok that nearly torched my old house in the country. That time, I climbed a ladder with a hose to douse the roof—and my body—as falling embers hit the wood shingles and me.
But the Camp Fire bowled me over. Among the many stops Meredith and I made in the days following the blaze was the Safeway shopping center on Clark Road. There, we watched the last of the flames lick what had been reduced to a massive pile of twisted metal. As we stood in the parking lot, we heard propane tanks exploding nearby. Many of the scenes were surreal—one I’ll never forget is a wheelchair next to an abandoned white Chevy Suburban.
A few others seared into my mind are too ghoulish to describe.
Meredith and I were fairly speechless that entire first trip. That was true when we returned to Chico, too. We ended up at Gordo Burrito, inside the Valero gas station on Eighth Street, and didn’t realize we were still wearing our press badges when we went in to grab the first bite we’d eaten all day. The folks there were incredibly sweet as we stood wide-eyed and tried to describe the scene.
I began having a recurring nightmare about fire in the weeks that followed. It changes a bit, but the basic narrative is me pushing against a throng of evacuating people to try to get to my family. It’s on a hillside at a place that resembles a concert venue, UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre.
I think I’m still processing it all—hence the insomnia, which comes and goes. For some reason, this was a particularly bad week.
Based on our other post-fire reporting, and conversations with co-workers, what I’m experiencing is “textbook” post-traumatic stress disorder. I haven’t written about this before, probably because I’ve been in denial. I also don’t fully understand it. I mean, I was safe in Chico when the Camp Fire overtook the eastern foothills. I didn’t have to outrun the flames.
If I’m struggling with aftereffects—simply from reporting on the early days and weeks of the disaster—imagine what it’s like for the thousands of people who barely made it out with their lives.