By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
When the Camp Fire scorched large swaths of Butte County in November, one parole agent went above the usual call of duty to help his neighbors and provide mutual aid, as well as maintaining communication with impacted parolees.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire ignited and officially became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, taking more than 80 lives and destroying more than 18,000 structures. The fire destroyed the town of Paradise and surrounding communities, which was home to almost 27,000 residents, including Parole Agent Jeremiah Britten and his family.
While readying himself for work, Agent Britten saw smoke in the distance. That’s when everything drastically changed. After ensuring his family’s safety, he turned his attention to his neighbors.
According to Agent Britten’s supervisors, in the fire’s aftermath Agent Britten continued to assist his neighbors by caring for the animals of those who evacuated, securing their homes, and providing mutual aid along with his other Parole Agent partners within Butte County. Agent Britten never lost focus of the mission and maintained communication with impacted parolees as the crisis unfolded and ensured full accountability, according to his supervisors.
Inside CDCR recently caught up with the parole agent to learn more about his actions.
What was going through your mind when you realized what was happening?
First thing Thursday morning, Nov. 8, I was preparing to leave for work when I saw the smoke shortly after the fire started. My initial thought was, “It’s too early in the morning for this type of fire behavior, this could be it, the smoke column was headed towards Paradise.” Everyone in the area knew of the possibility of fire and how much of a challenge a fire in this area would be. But it was crossing large canyons and making record time. I watched for a short while to monitor the progress and determine if there was a larger threat. It didn’t take long to realize that everything in its path was in grave danger.
How did your neighbors respond when you helped alert them of the impending danger?
There was certainly a mixed response. Some were dazed and confused. The majority were on their way out, others had no idea the serious nature of this fire, and a few of the elderly residents which have stayed through other previous fires were reluctant to leave. I found the neighbors that remained home were grateful for the notification but were still hesitant to leave due to the lack of official notification. Luckily the majority eventually heeded my warnings.
What was it like for you to be there in the middle of that blaze?
Prior to my current employment, I spent several years operating heavy equipment on fire line for our family owned business. In some ways, this was the same. You do what you need to do to protect people, their homes and their property. However, it was a bit surreal knowing it was my neighborhood.
The biggest question is the unknown in these situations. The wind, flames and fuels are unpredictable. Prior to the fire making it to our area, Paradise and the surrounding area was completely engulfed. I could see the wall of flames and hear the propane tanks blowing up in the distance along with the constant sound of sirens of first responders headed toward the massive blaze and complete darkness.
Unfortunately, the towns that had already succumbed to the blaze, did not have the warning we had. I was not told it was coming but could see and hear it. Mid-day looked more like the middle of the night under the cloud of smoke and falling ash. I suppose I made a calculated risk in knowing the areas I could go to be safe in these situations if that was even possible.
When the fire made it down to our area there was a strong southern wind that was pushing the fire past the properties instead of towards them. However, there were times I was concerned the fire would change directions and nothing would keep it from consuming my neighborhood as it did so many others in its path.
Fortunately, the wind kept the flames at bay long enough to allow our equipment and the Cal Fire dozer to put in a fire line to stop what would have been devastating to the neighborhood.
What’s next for you? Your neighbors?
I don’t know what is next for me, we are taking each day trying to help others put the pieces back together. I cannot speak for all neighbors, but I know that a number of people are trying rebuild their lives and help those who have lost everything. Many of the surrounding neighbors’ homes look more like RV parks from the large number of camp trailers parked next to the homes trying to give someone a place that they can call home.
The town is gone, for all intents and purposes, with no drinking water, limited services and an unknown timeline for the clean-up of the mountains of burnt debris. Children are moved to makeshift schools around the county.
Doctors, dentists, and every other kind of business have lost everything. Even if their building survived, they have no people to serve.
Nobody knows the future of tomorrow but many who lost everything are very grateful for what they do have and they continue to keep their spirit up. That gives me hope that something good will come.
If there’s one piece of advice you can give those who finds themselves in a similar situation, what would it be?
Although I stayed at home and protected the area, I cannot suggest someone else do the same. Do what you can to help out and get to know your neighbors before you find yourself entering a stranger’s house to save a cat, learning to feed alpacas, tracking down rabbits, or caring for chickens, goats and a bird sanctuary.
You never know what impact you may have on their life or they will have on yours. I’m not saying to run into a burning building or stand in front of a wall of flames but be there for each other in a time of need and do what you can.