As It Happens

'We have everything,' says woman who narrowly escaped Calif. fire with her baby 1 year ago

When a wildfire burned Ellen Johnson's home to the ground last year, she felt like she had lost everything in the Camp Fire. But one year later, she says she can't believe how lucky she is.

Ellen Johnson thought she lost everything in the Camp Fire, but now she realizes how lucky she is

Ellen Johnson, her husband Ryan Johnson and their son Knox. The family lost their Paradise, Calif., home in 2018's Camp Fire. (Melody Olivas)


When a wildfire burned Ellen Johnson's home to the ground last year, she said she felt like she had lost everything. 

But one year later, as she watches her 17-month-old son Knox peddle around on his tricycle at their new home in Oregon, she says she can't believe how lucky she is.

"I kind of couldn't get over that we just lost everything. And now I realize that we have everything," Johnson told As It Happens host Carol Off. "We have everything that we need. We have everything that we could possibly want."

Johnson is one of thousands of people who lost their homes in Paradise, Calif, last year to the Camp Fire. The deadly blaze wreaked havoc on the quiet town, killing 85 people and forcing tens of thousands to flee. 

Stranded with her infant son 

On Nov. 8, 2018, Johnson was at home waiting for her husband when the sky darkened and ash started falling from above.

She knew she had to get out of town quick, so she grabbed her pets and her then-five-month-old son, hopped into her car and hit the highway.

The traffic was so thick, and the fire so intense, she didn't think she would make it out alive. Some of her neighbours didn't.

In this Nov. 8, 2018, file photo, a home burns in Paradise. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

She spent nearly six hours in that car, smoke billowing around them, with Knox on her lap. 

"There was a level of powerlessness that was really hard for me," she said. "I couldn't do anything at the time."

After narrowly escaping the flames and reuniting with her husband, she spoke to As It Happens. 

"At one point I thought: 'Should I be pouring water on my son? Are we going to die in our car?'" Johnson, who then used the last name VandenBerg, said at the time.

85 seconds of silence 

On Friday hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot of a former bank building in Paradise to mark the fire's one-year anniversary. They paused for 85 seconds — one for each person who died.

The crowd held onto each during the ceremony, holding hands, touching shoulders and remembering the day when the most destructive wildfire in California history swept through their town and destroyed roughly 19,000 buildings.

Laura Smith, centre, holds her head in her hands during the 85 seconds of silence to honour the 85 people who died in last year's Camp Fire. (Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press)

About 3,000 of the town's 30,000 residents have returned. Many of them live in travel trailers parked on lots scraped clean of more than 3.66 million tonnes of charred and toxic ruins.

"The people that are doing that, I'm very impressed with them," Johnson said. "I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of bravery to go back and be there."

But Johnson has no intention of returning.

"There's nothing to go back to," she said. "We did go back and there was nothing left. There was no sifting through anything."

A new life 

After the fire, Johnson and her family spent four months in the Sacramento area, then five months in a small, remote cabin outside Nevada City, on the snow-capped North San Juan ridge.

"It was very peaceful and it was just nothing that I was used to," she said. "It was very, very much what I needed. I needed to just be away from everything."

Robert Bean pauses at lot where a building was destroyed in last years Camp Fire in Paradise. (Rich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press)

The family has since settled in to their new home in Grants Pass, Ore.

These days, Johnson says she feels a mix of gratitude that she and her family survived and rebuilt their lives, and empathy for those who didn't make it out, or who are still struggling to bounce back. 

The ghosts of that traumatic day still haunt her sometimes, she said. 

"I did recently see a five-month- old baby, and I was like that baby is so small," she said. "And I was like, that is how old Knox was when we got out of there. Just like, I can't believe it. He was just a baby, you know?"

But little Knox survived the fire unscathed.

While Johnson spoke to As It Happens over the phone from her new home, he was riding around nearby on his tricycle, blissfully unaware of the trials and tribulations his family has been through.

"He's good," she said. "He doesn't remember any of it. "

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press and Sarah Jackson. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?