Thirty-four-year-old Brittney Morrison finally felt she had gotten to an ideal place in her life. She had landed a job she loved, built a loving home with partner Michael, her three beautiful children were happy, healthy, and enthusiastically learning through an incredible homeschooling program, and Brittney was getting ready to start taking some night classes to further herself even more. She loved where she had planted her roots—in the small mountain town of Paradise, California. “It is such a beautiful place,” she describes. Brittney moved to Paradise when she was just three-years-old and stayed for most of her life, aside from a year or two here and there in her young adulthood. On November 8, 2018, Brittney’s life that she had worked so hard for and her beloved hometown were dramatically and horrifically altered.
That Thursday morning was pretty normal, at first. When Brittney walked out of her house, she could see a veil of smoke in the air. Living in a heavily forested region in Northern California, smoke wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary. “There are fires all the time,” Brittney justifies. “There are fires, they are miles away, and they are quickly contained. It’s normal.” She was on her way to work, as was Michael, and the kids, ages 3, 6, and 7, were tucked safely away at home with Brittney’s mom, Maria, for the day.
“I had had been having a weird feeling for a week or two. I couldn’t explain it. That morning, I was driving to work, I got a bad feeling. I felt like I needed to go back home.” Brittney pulled over to call Maria to tell her she was going to come home. While she was pulled over, a dear friend, Danielle, called and said, “Get out, sis. This is going to be bad. Get the kids and get out to Chico.”
Brittney was just seven minutes from her house. She hurriedly stopped for gas, then drove back home. In that ten minutes or so it took her to get gas and go home, the sky had turned orange. She recalls, “The fire wasn’t on the next mountain range or whatever. It was in our backyard.”
Brittney knew she needed to get her kids and get out, quick. She wanted to grab a few things before evacuating, but she knew she didn’t have time. She didn’t even have time to get her cat. All she could do was load her children up in her car and go. “I felt… panic,” she remembers. “By the time we left the house, the sky was black. I couldn’t think. It was fight or flight.”
Maria was concerned about her own mother, Brittney’s grandmother, who lived in Magalia just up the mountain. “My grandma couldn’t drive in the dark,” Brittney explains, “and with all the smoke, it was so dark. That’s what we were worried about.” Brittney later found out her grandmother was in her car driving and had travelled north through Butte Meadows, eventually landing safely at Brittney’s cousin’s house. Maria took a left out of the driveway to head up to Magalia while Brittney and the kids took a right. Brittney called her father in Magalia and told him he needed to get out. He had had a stroke a few years ago, and Brittney was so worried for him. She did not hear from him again that day.
The traffic on Skyway Road, the main road in Paradise, was completely gridlocked. A man was in the street waving her to the right. She felt unsettled by the direction and went left instead. Looking back, she’s so grateful she followed her instinct; going to the right would have taken her to Magalia, where there ended up being no open way out besides back down through Paradise.
Maria called and said she was leaving her car. She was running down the street. “Why!?” Brittney had cried. “Mom, go back to your car! Get in your car and leave!” Maria told her that there had been cars blowing up all around her. So she got out of her car and just started running. When Brittney asked Maria where she was, Maria said she was passing Brittney’s house. “She had made, literally, no progress.”
Brittney later found out that Maria was jumping into people’s cars on Skyway, trying to get a ride out. If the car was not moving anywhere after a few minutes, Maria would say ‘thank you,’ pray over the people in the car, and then she would get out and move on to the next car. Maria did this all the way to safety.
While Brittney and the kids were jammed in the traffic, Brittney recalls, “I still just felt that panic.” She could see that the oncoming traffic lane on two-lane Skyway was completely clear. No one was coming up the mountain. That’s when Elijah, her seven-year-old, always wise beyond his years, gave her a solution.
“Pray, mom,” Elijah said. “Just pray.”
Brittney did. She prayed and prayed. Then, she maneuvered her car into the empty oncoming lane and rode it all the way down the mountain to safety.
Brittney, Michael, Maria, and the kids eventually convened in the Raley’s parking lot in Chico. Brittney spoke to Michael's sister, Destiny, on the phone, who was stuck by the Optimo parking lot on Skyway with her two-year-old daughter. Destiny told Brittney the scene around her reminded her of Bambi when all of the animals were running for their lives away from the forest fire.
Brittney and her family stayed in the parking lot all day. Brittney could not get a hold of her father. Eventually, they got into a hotel room for the night. Brittney remembers locking herself in the bathroom. She finally let herself cry, and she prayed. She prayed for her dad, “Please God, just let him be ok. Please let him be ok.”
She did hear from her dad not long after; he was at Desabla Reservoir in Magalia, camped with about 100 other people. They had been ready to use the reservoir itself and the rock dam to keep themselves alive if it had come to it.
Brittney, Michael, and the kids have recently relocated to Washington state near an uncle. It’s beautiful and the small town has been so welcoming and gracious. Brittney’s new landlord has been so kind, and a nearby church helped furnish the home. Brittney does not know how long they will stay. After battling with FEMA (who did, at one point, give them enough money to cover a deposit and the first month’s rent), amongst other things, Brittney sighs, “I’m just here to heal. That’s what we need to do.”
Through it all, Brittney, somehow, remains optimistic. She is simply letting go and trusting the process. “Angels exist,” Brittney declares. “I know they do. I’ve met so many.”
Brittney and Michael, aside from losing their home and all of its contents, lost Michael’s truck and also two new laptops and a printer, which were purchased very recently prior to the wildfire. We are working to get an Amazon wishlist set up for this family, but for now, Brittney’s “angels” can help via the free app., VenMo here: https://venmo.com/Brittney-Morrison-5