Escape from Paradise

Yesterday marked the two year anniversary of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California. With my grandparents losing their home to the Camp Fire, I wanted to let my grandfather share his side of the story. Enjoy a letter he wrote to inform family and friends of his current situation as well as a brief tale of his escape. -Chris

By Ellis Harms

I am Ellis Harms at Carlton Senior Living, 1075 Fulton Ave, Sacramento, CA 95825. I am here because my son Neil and his wife Julie rescued Arlene and me after the fire.

We lived with them for 2 weeks. Our 3 kids shopped around and found this place, 3 meals a day and 24-hour nursing care, ideal for Arlene who only lived here 2 days before going to a Sacramento Hospital by ambulance. She had been in heritage Rehab Hospital in Paradise, diagnosed with a rare chemical imbalance known as Inappropriate Syndrome of Anti-Diuretic Hormone Secretion discovered when she was in the ICU at Feather River Hospital in Paradise. My 3 kids and I had been concerned about her Low Sodium and a UTI condition diagnoses by various doctors. Arlene had also been told that her kidneys were failing, which was later corrected. We thought at one point, the cause of her condition may be her reaction to the many drugs being administered to her.

She was released from Heritage the day before we were evacuated from our home. We got the news by telephone at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, November 8, my daughter Gale’s 65th Birthday. Paradise was on fire!

Gale was at our house organizing her mother’s medication and making arrangements for her continued care when we got the evacuation call. We immediately prepared to evacuate. As we started to leave, Gale said, “Dad, get your important papers.” I went to the hall closet and got a small metal case which later turned out to be most valuable, as it contained our insurance policy information. Son Neil soon attended to insurance concerns and we were generously reimbursed by the California Fair Plan. The policy was valid until that next May. We had been rejected previously by Hartford who had insured us for years, as well as the Ageis Insurance company, now saying there was too much danger of fire in California. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Gale put her mother in her car and asked me if I wanted to go with them or drive my own car, I said I’d drive my own car, thinking I’d follow Gale down Clark Road. We soon were separated as we inched our way, with very heavy traffic down the road. I was accosted by someone pecking on my window asking if they could hitch a ride. It was my good friend from church, Bob Irvine, who had parked his pick-up along Clark Road and wanted to ride with me. I soon met Gale driving north. She yelled out the window and said she had been turned around by authorities voluntarily directing traffic, and sent up to the Optimo parking lot where she and ailing Arlene spent several frustrating hours.

They were eventually sent on their way and met me at our previously arranged meeting place at our niece’s house in Gridley, where Arlene and I spent our first night.

Evidently Gale and Arlene had stopped at our house on Clark Road and gone to the bathroom, and taken a couple cans of Ensure and some cookies from the freezer. The electricity was off, and they were trying to find an escape route out of Paradise. Meanwhile Bob Irvine and I escaped down Clark Road fairly smoothly, amid heavy traffic, avoiding all side roads, going down to Pearson and across to Skyway. It was very dark, and fire was rampant on each side of the road in the tall trees. Huge embers of fire were flying through the air in the violent wind. At one point I asked Bob where we were. He said that that was Safeway engulfed in flames and I could also see the neighboring Grocery Outlet burning. Bob spent most of his time on the phone checking on his clients, as he owns and manages several homes for handicapped people. He rode with me down Skyway to Chico where he got out and met his wife who works in the hospital there.

In 1960, Arlene and I had purchased a little 2 room cabin on 1.7 acres on upper Clark Road in Paradise for $7,400. It was called a “sleeper” and was the summer getaway of the Chico Penny's manager. No one lived in it. It was furnished with home-made furniture and contained cans of pork and beans and playing cards. We lived in it for 2.5 years with our 3 kids. It had a fireplace and wood cook stove where Arlene baked bread. We were plenty warm and found room for our grand piano and dining room table. Our kids were not crawling, nor were they teenagers, so it worked! They did not want to move from there when it was time to transfer to the addition we’d built on the back of the cabin.

Memories of the cabin include long, incessant rainstorms that, when they ended, made us wonder why it was so quiet. We thought the cabin might float away at times. We also had 18 inches of snow one April. Daffodils pushed up through the snow. Arlene and I would put cooking pans under leaks in the roof. Arlene provided me with white, ironed shirts, appropriate for my job as principal of Paradise Elementary School. Dawn, our youngest, fit perfectly in the kitchen sink when bathed. A tiny room in back contained washing and toilet facilities.

Arlene was an excellent musician, no one could sing like her. She privately taught piano and voice. I was very involved in designing our home. I did oil painting and watercolors most of the paintings that hung in our house. Arlene admired me and I admired her skills which included cooking and entertaining. We were married for 67 years.

Carlton Senior Living provides excellent meals and the cafeteria is open all day. The personnel and residents are very friendly and supportive. I count my blessings daily and appreciate being here and living close to my 3 kids (Gale in Marysville, Neil in Citrus Heights, and Dawn in San Francisco). I live on the third floor and look over the courtyard. There are several Redwood trees in sight; I can see the moon from my window and watch birds come and go. I count my blessings!



  • Linda Davis-Reed

    I don’t know why it took me so long to find this wonderful post. Ellis Harms was the principal of Paradise Elementary School from the time of fourth grade till 6th grade for me. What a wonderful man and educator!
    I have wonderful memories of grade school and of Paradise, and he describes it well. I loved growing up there, as did my sister, brother and my son. Thank you, Ellis for some wonderful memories.
    Linda Davis-Reed

  • Lupe Johnson

    Dear Uncle Ellis,
    I miss the former, happy times with you in Paradise. We loved visiting you and Aunt Arlene and catching up on family and life. We would drop off fruit from our orchard and Arlene would give us an apricot pie or bread made with carrot pulp
    after juicing or cookies. She was a marvelous cook! Then we would go see your new creations down in the cabin. You are such an artist; potter, painter, story teller! We miss your laughter and smiles. Can’t wait to see you, after covid!

    Thanks for sharing! Love you tons!
    Kurt and Lupe

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