Port High grads make harrowing escape from wildfire

Couple who fled inferno and have been living in a camper do not know if their home near Paradise, Calif., survived
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Kim Lathrop remembers what it was like on Thursday, Nov. 8, when she and her partner Chris Dady had to evacuate their home  in Yankee Hill, Calif., near Paradise.

About 7 a.m., Lathrop said, Dady told her there was a fire.

“I kind of brushed it off,” she said. “We see fires all the time.”

But then, she said, she went outside.

“We could hear it,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my God.’ We didn’t think we would be evacuated — we thought it would go in the other direction.”

They were evacuated about noon, leaving with their three dogs, their go bags and a few clothes they packed hastily.

“It was pretty scary,” Lathrop said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

They took separate vehicles, pulling over  about five miles down the road.

“We didn’t know where we were going,” Lathrop said. “We were both on the phone trying to figure out where we would go.”

Then, she said, a woman pulled up near them, shaking and crying. She had just watched her house burn.

She talked to her best friend, Lathrop said, whose husband was heading home when smoke and flames forced him to abandon his truck and run for his life.

“She kept calling me back, crying,” Lathrop said. “Our evacuation wasn’t as intense, thank God.”

Lathrop and Dady both grew up in Port Washington and were members of the Port High classes of 2002 and 2003, respectively. They moved to California four years ago and, as Lathrop put it, “fell in love.”

Dady is self-employed in landscaping, specializing in fire prevention work, while Lathrop is a waitress at a cafe in Paradise.

Their first experience with a wildfire came on Sept. 5, 2016, while they were renting a property about five minutes from their current home.  

“We had been sitting on our porch with friends and saw it start,” Lathrop said. A boat was being trailored from a nearby lake and a chain was dangling and sparking on the road, starting six separate fires.

They were fine that time and Dady, who Lathrop said is “super organized,” posted a list near the door of what to do if they were evacuated.

They kept to-go bags with things they wanted to save and their valuable papers. So when they were evacuated this time, they grabbed those along with a suitcase of clothes they threw together.

“Of course, we didn’t grab any of your basic, everyday necessities,” Lathrop said — no toothbrushes or T-shirts, for example. 

But they were lucky, she said, because as they evacuated they found a place to stay. The mother of one of their friends opened her doors to them, allowing them to live in a camper on her property in Oroville.

“She’s a saint,” Lathrop said, noting she’s also providing a place for her ex-husband to stay since he was also evacuated.

“The most awful thing is you just want to go home and you can’t,” Lathrop said.

They don’t even know if they have a place to go home to, and rumors are swirling that it could be weeks, maybe a month, before they can return. The couple had been building a tiny house around a trailer they owned, and were about to enclose it when the fire struck.

A neighbor has told them their outbuildings, such as a storage shed filled with Dady’s tools and equipment, is gone but he can’t see whether their house has survived, Lathrop said.

Dady is meticulous about keeping a 100-foot clear zone around the trailer to keep fire from affecting it, but whether it was enough is something they just don’t know, she said.

There’s a website filled with pictures of structures affected by the fire, she added, “but it hasn’t even come close to us yet. We have no idea if it survived.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

It’s not just their home they may have lost. Her job is also gone, Lathrop said, noting the diner where she works was destroyed by the fire. 

But the couple know they aren’t alone, and that helps, Lathrop said. 

“We have lots of friends here, but literally everybody is displaced,” she said. “I know maybe three people who have a home. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

And because so many people are displaced, it’s difficult to find anywhere to rent or stay. One of Dady’s friends helped a couple in their 80s pitch a tent so they have someplace to stay — “Can you imagine your grandparents having to stay in a tent at night?” Lathrop said.

And while there are reports that as many as 1,000 people are missing, Lathrop said she doesn’t believe that’s the case. 

“Hundreds maybe,” she said, noting Paradise is a retirement community where many people rely on land lines and phone books that aren’t available to them right now.

None of her or Dady’s friends are missing, she said.

Lathrop and Dady have been trying to keep busy, going to a local gym that’s opened its doors to the displaced and walking their three dogs.

This week, they planned to visit her father’s cousin in San Jose for Thanksgiving, giving their new landlord a break.

Lathrop said she’s been struck by the kindness of strangers.

“It’s a tough situation, but the outpouring of support from people is incredible,” she said.

She and Dady went to Walmart in nearby Chico to pick up some necessities and found relief workers had set up four semi-tractor trailers across the street, filled with items for the displaced. They came home with everything they needed, she said.

“I was brought to tears,” Lathrop said. “I can’t believe people do that for you — they don’t even know you.”

Lathrop, who said the losses she and Dady have suffered aren’t covered by insurance, said the fitness app Gixo has set up a fundraiser for the couple, and her mother has set up a GoFundMe page as well.

If there’s one thing the couple is sure of Lathrop said, it’s that they will stay in Yankee Hill.

Already, a Facebook page has been set up of residents connecting with one another and planning how they can help each other rebuild.

“That’s why we’re going to stay,” she said. “The people here are so resilient. They help each other. 

“This is home. We’re going to deal with it.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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