Insight With Beth Ruyak

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Camp Wildfire Survivor Explains Why He And His Wife Stayed To Defend Their Home


Dr. Doug Houston is the chancellor of the Yuba Community College District. As Butte County residents rushed to evacuate from the Camp Fire, he and his wife, Kathy, remained at their home south of Paradise.

He joins Insight to share his story and why they decided to stay. You can read an account of Dr. Houston's experience in the Appeal-Democrat. Here are highlights from his conversation with Randol White, in for Beth Ruyak on Insight:

Interview Highlights

On when the fire was first moving into the area

I was trying to assess how the fire was coming in and sort of delegate out tasks to my wife and I as to how we would fight it as it came in. We weren't sure until it got real close exactly how — whether it would come up a canyon that's to the east of our home or straight down the ridge line to the north of our home, or a little canyon off to the west, and as I was able to monitor it coming in and we're able to kind of deploy our resources. So mostly I think just thinking and planning — not any real time other than that to react to it.

We've lived in this house for 20 years. We've known since we we bought this property and moved out here that we were pretty isolated. We knew that if a fire like this came in that we would have to be the lowest priority for the firefighting resources. We knew that. So we've been preparing. We've cleared acres around our house. We have ample water, storage, a generator. We own our own fire pumps. We own our own fire-resistant clothing, tools and smoke masks. We've given this a lot of thought and as this fire came in I knew that the absolute safest place for us would actually be here rather than trying to evacuate.

On what they're seeing and feeling now

I'll say this as a combat veteran, so I can't say this lightly: It really does look like, you know, you hear the phrase war zone — it's easy to take that lightly — but it does really look like that. And the hard part, of course, is that even those areas that we've driven, we know people whose homes now have been destroyed. We've been able to contact them in some cases and we brought them the first news. Often they already knew.

And our church — there was a pretty iconic picture of our church burning on the first day. So our entire congregation is now down in Chico — those that are accounted for. We're starting to learn that some of our members may not have survived, and so that's hard. These are people that we've known for decades, friends. So yeah, I would say certainly very disheartening, frustrating. It's very sad, obviously. I think there's also some hope. Many of our neighbors have other family members up in town who lost homes and they've been able to get out to see us as we've rescued their animals, and they're starting to develop a sense of hope as well sort of coming out of the you know the initial shock and thinking about how they'll go about rebuilding and redoubling their commitment to do so.

On whether neighbors plan to rebuild

We're hearing stories of people, even potentially some of our own congregation, members who are elderly and might just choose to relocate to live with family in some other part of the state or some other state. But most the people that we've spoken with have just been absolutely committed to staying. To a person they've all said that they just really love this town of ours and they want to be part of its future.

On whether staying behind sets a good example

Only under our circumstances. So I'm still able to support my college district, so I'm able to to work in ways that I probably wouldn't have been able to had we evacuated. But our assessment was based on our own circumstances. Everyone has to make that choice for themselves. We knew, we'd had affirmed from numerous fire officials, that we were well-prepared. Certainly anyone who doesn't have that opportunity, who hasn't been able to prepare to the depth and expense that we have should heed the evacuation warnings and certainly heed the evacuation orders.

But I think under the circumstance — I think really that if there is leadership that we've shown through this, it's been in our preparation, in our anticipation of this, in not wanting to add to the burden of the first responders as they're trying to support those who didn't have the means to prepare in ways that we did.

On whether the risk of fires has gotten worse

I think it's exacerbated because more and more people are choosing this lifestyle. Other than days like today, we have stunning views, we have wonderful neighbors that we know well, we live in a pretty secluded lifestyle, so it's quiet and it's the lifestyle that we choose. But it does mean that we're now putting ourselves at greater risk. We're farther away from public services and the like, so those are choices that we make. But I think your point is a good one — more and more people are choosing to do so. And so you acknowledged earlier that I'm an educator; some of my colleagues and I around the state are already starting to put together some ideas for how public education, higher education can contribute to the education of people that choose to live in these environs.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.

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