My name’s Cassie McMurray, or Coach Cat as many know me. I’m the Paradise High School Cheerleading coach and my family are Camp Fire Survivors. I wanted to tell our story so people could hear it and maybe it could help somebody.
I have five daughters and on November 8, it started as a normal day for my family. We got up at 6:30 for school and got everybody ready. I dropped my little three daughters off at elementary school in Magalia, and I drove my two older daughters to Paradise to drop them off at middle school and high school. Before I could even get home, I got a call from my daughter's friend saying they were evacuating the high school and that I needed to go back and pick them up.
I could see the smoke kind of in the distance. At that point, I didn’t realize how close the fire was. I went to the high school and picked up my oldest daughter. Then I went to the middle school and picked up my eighth grader and we tried to head back home, which was Magalia. We were trying to drive back home and we noticed traffic was getting pretty chaotic at that point. We have gone up to the top of the street to turn onto the main road that heads up to the Magalia area, and the road was already on fire.
Naturally, my heart started beating really fast and I tried to reassure my oldest two daughters that everything was gonna be OK. At that point, I had spoken with my husband's aunt, who also lives in the area, and she could not reach my husband. She was rushing to my daughters’ elementary school to pick them up, as well, so that we could evacuate.
Me and my oldest daughters, we got trapped. For about an hour and a half, two hours, we were stuck on this road at a complete stop in traffic. It got to a point to where the road on both sides of us was completely on fire. My daughters were crying and they were scared, and they were asking me if we were going to make it to my husband and our younger daughters. I kept telling them that it was going to be OK. Then a car maybe five cars or so behind us exploded. At that point, I kind of just maneuvered my way around other cars and sped forward.
We met up with my husband who was about a mile or so up the street with my younger daughters. We tried to evacuate down, but we couldn’t. We had to turn around because the fire, it had already taken over Paradise and was heading up to Magalia.
We turned back around and rushed up to Magalia, went home, and tried to pack a few things so we'd have things with us. We got everything and tried to drive to a gas station. At that point, no gas stations were giving out anymore gas. I would assume they were out of gas at that point... I’m not sure. The traffic was at a standstill and it’s only one road out and one lane, so you can imagine how many people were sitting in this traffic, bumper-to-bumper, panicking with children, with their families. We realized we couldn’t get gas. We had to leave our vehicle.
My husband's aunt ended up taking my younger children with her in her vehicle and getting in the traffic to try to head out. I jumped into my husband's uncle’s vehicle, which was a stick shift, which I hadn’t driven in over 10 years. It was the only vehicle with gas. Me, him, and one of our older daughters hopped in that vehicle and we got in traffic, as well, and started trying to head out the long way out through Butte Meadows. What normally would be maybe a 45-minute or so drive was about a 3 1/2 or four hour drive.
I think that the most devastating experience for me was driving out of Butte Meadows and seeing people standing on the sides of the road, holding their children, with signs saying: “out of gas, please help.” Knowing that... that there’s nothing that you can do. The state of panic that I’m in, and I’m in a car and I can leave, and I have my children, and my other children are safe in front of me in another vehicle... These people are stuck. They’re stranded and they have nothing.
Eventually, about five hours later, we arrived in Yuba City to stay with some family, who was absolutely amazing, accommodated my family of seven, plus my husband’s aunt, his grandmother, and other family affected by the fire. We stayed there for about a week. Then we had to go to Sacramento and stay in hotels for another week. And go back to Yuba City for another week. And this went on for about two months.
I think the realist moment for me was when I got a phone call the next day after the fire, which was my birthday, and a friend started crying when I answered and said: "I just wanted to make sure you were OK."
I said, "Yeah, we got out safe. I’m glad that you guys are safe as well." None of us had any service. No body knew if anybody was safe.
He said: "I heard that a family had burned in their vehicle, and I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t yours."
It just ate my heart knowing that, in that moment, the mom couldn’t do anything. Or the dad, or whoever. They couldn’t save their family.
As I said, I am the cheerleading coach at the high school. I had 42 cheerleaders at the beginning of my cheer season this year, and I also coach the youth team of 20, so I had 62 cheerleaders. About a month after the fire, I finally heard from all 62 and I knew that they were all safe. But only eight of them had a home. I knew that it’s never going to be the same. But, we were all blessed to get out ok.
I’m just grateful that I’ve had so many blessings, so many blessings come since the fire. My family now has a home. My family back in Utah banded together— my siblings, my dad, who I had not spoken to in near a decade, packed a van full of stuff and drove it over for my family. Over two dozen people helped make sure that my family had a Christmas, that our rent is paid, and our lights are paid. I just feel so blessed. So blessed to be a part of this community and to be a survivor. I’m blessed that my family can help rebuild this community. And hopefully make it bigger, better, and stronger.
I’m going to miss so many people who I know won’t be back. I made some lifelong friends here. I just want people to know the blessings are not unappreciated. I’m so, so grateful for the things people have done for my family, for my cheer squads, for everybody in my community, for friends. We are truly blessed and we all love you so much. We are so grateful for all of your love and all of your compassion. We hope you continue to reach out. We love you guys. You’ll keep hearing from my family. God bless.