It was November 8, 2018. Joe Arias and housemate Michael woke up that morning to the sounds of unexplained explosions. Shortly after, at 7:30 AM, Joe's three-year-old daughter, Jayde, was dropped off to him. Jayde's mother, Samantha, told Joe that a fire had started near their small mountain town of Paradise, California, and had spread to 180 acres. The explosions Joe and Michael heard earlier that morning had been propane tanks on nearby properties. The sky was orange.
Joe took Jayde inside. He showed her how the coffee pot worked then played with her for 10-15 minutes before Samantha skirted hurriedly back into the driveway. In just 20 minutes, the fire had spread to over 1,000 acres. Samantha was worried about her family in the area, especially her six-year-old son, Jerin, who she had just dropped off at school. She wanted to take Jayde with her to pick Jerin up before heading to her family home to ensure her family was getting out of Paradise safely. The phone services were not working. Joe remembers buckling Jayde into her carseat, giving her a kiss, and telling Samantha to just get Jerin and leave town. By then- the sky was red.
Joe waited with Michael, one of Michael's brothers, Jesse, and Michael's father, Jose, for 15 minutes to decide what to do. Ash fell. First ash, then embers. A neighbor's house caught on fire. The raining embers grew to the size of baseballs and Joe tried to stomp them out. A man named Ted pulled up in a white car. Joe, Michael, Jesse, and Jose jumped in the car with Ted and they began their evacuation. Smoke choked the world and it was getting harder and harder to see. At Clark Road in Paradise, Joe remembers: "the whole town was on the street. Trying to get out." Traffic was barely moving. People were pulling out of the street and driving on sidewalks. The sky was midnight black.
Cars were grid-locked once Joe and his companions got to Skyway Road, the main thoroughfare through Paradise. The car was like an oven and the thick smoke made Joe sleepy and nauseous, even though he was covering his face with a bandana. He kept telling himself not to fall asleep because if he did, he might not wake up again. Jesse kept making feeble attempts to crack jokes to keep the spirits in the car alive, but no one could laugh.
Winds that day were upwards of 40 mph. Fire whirls were summoning. Flames were being thrown everywhere. Skyway Road, itself, was smoldering. Joe could hear people's tires popping from the extreme heat. People were running along the side of the road-- some without vehicles to take them to safety; some whose vehicles ran out of gas; some whose vehicles had caught fire; some just so helplessly desperate to get out. People in cars were yelling out to the people running to jump into their cars with them. Animals were running, too. Some of them were on fire. Joe says: "I will never forget the screams."
After a three hour nightmare getting from Paradise to safety in Chico (normally a 30-minute drive), Joe, Michael, Jesse, Jose, and Ted landed at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. They worried about Michael's youngest brother, Angelo, who had been at school when the fire started to spread. Joe was sick with panic wondering if Jayde and Jerin and Samantha were safe. If they were even alive.
“I was just… freaking out. There were no evacuation orders. There was no warning. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was the apocalypse. Or World War III. I really did,” Joe recounts of his mentality while being stuck in limbo at the Fairgrounds. The TV had been on that morning. The news had been on. Nothing was said about the fire. No one was warned they needed to run for their lives.
Michael and his family were soon reunited with Angelo, who recounted his own evacuation story. He had been stuck in the gridlocked traffic in a school bus full of terrified, crying school children, surrounded by hellfire. Angelo has his own story. All survivors do.
Finally, Joe heard from Samantha. She and the kids were safe. Joe felt relieved, but the sense of relief about his loved ones being safe did not take away the darkness the loomed over him and the community of Paradise. The nightmare Joe lived through—that all the Camp Fire survivors lived through—will replay in Joe’s mind for a long time. Nightmares too terrible to even utter.
Joe is 29-years-old, a loving father, and a very hard worker. He is blind in his left eye from a horrible gun incident that occurred when he was younger. He has had Lasik surgery and his right eye functions well, but because of the blindness in his left eye, he has not yet gotten his drivers’ license. For this reason, he does not own a vehicle. Joe has very recently moved into a studio apartment in Orland—an hour’s drive from where Jayde and Samantha are currently living. Due to the chaos that has become everyday life for Camp Fire survivors, it has been very difficult for Samantha to make the trip to Orland so Jayde and Joe can spend time together. Joe has secured work in Orland; now his sole mission is to get his driver’s license, which entails a doctor’s approval, and work hard to save up enough money for a car so he can be with his daughter.
Joe has spent his entire adulthood working hard for what he had. He lost everything in the fire—thousands and thousands of dollars of worldly possessions. While he is grateful that Jayde, Jerin, Samantha, and his friends survived, he is struggling. He was denied for FEMA assistance (as many survivors are, due to various and sometimes perplexing reasons). Red Cross did provide him with $900, which has helped him with some basic necessities and costs of living. Good people have given Joe some clothing and helped him provide Christmas gifts to both Jayde and Jerin. This help aside, rebuilding his life will take years.
First and foremost—let’s get Joe and Jayde in a position in which they can be together on a regular basis. Jayde misses her daddy terribly, and Joe misses her perhaps even more. Here is Joe’s PayPal
. No amount is too great or small, but all will be used to help Joe buy a car so he can be with his daughter.