Recovery

A Cat, the Camp Fire and 2 Days of Fear: How One Survivor Made It out with Everything Important

'I had to wait for every house to burn down so I could see where I could take shelter and that’s when I saw the laundry room was not touched … I tried the laundry room door and it was open.'

by Molly Sullivan, The Sacramento Bee / November 29, 2018
Ryan Acles shows a photo of his burnt 2009 Hyundai Elantra at right and the burnt out mobile home park on his iPhone on Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018 in Roseville, Calif. His mom Cheryl Valente said the car wouldn't start when she tried to evacuate during the raging Camp Fire in Paradise. Acles was in Roseville trying to make his way back to save his mother. TNS

(TNS) — Cheryl Valente was not going to abandon her cat Chelsea to the Camp Fire, but she doubted either of them was going to survive.

Minutes earlier on the morning of Nov. 8, Valente received a robocall warning her that a fire was moving closer to her trailer in the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park in Paradise, but also letting her know she wasn’t under a mandatory evacuation order.

She had been through the Humboldt Fire in 2008, so she was cautious. She called her son, Ryan Acles, and asked him to return with her pickup truck, which he had driven to Roseville, to get her and Chelsea.

While she waited, she put on her favorite dark green jumpsuit, black socks and orthopedic sandals and tucked extra shoes and a coat in a bag. Chelsea, a blue-eyed Siamese with sable brown fur, went into her carrier with some food and a water bowl.

Valente, 59, was drinking a cup of coffee when she peeked through the curtains to see what was happening in the small community of about 60 trailers.

“I opened my front drapes to see what was going on, and all the trees behind my neighbor’s house were on fire and the back of his house was catching fire,” she said. “I just grabbed the cat and left everything else I packed and ran for it. The fire was coming straight my way.”

All of her neighbors were gone. As far as she could see with the smoke moving in, she and Chelsea were the only ones left in what was quickly becoming a fire storm.

Despite two torn rotator cuffs, which hurt her shoulders when she raises her arms, and a lingering injury from when she broke her back years ago, Valente gripped Chelsea’s carrier as she ran.

“If I was (in pain), I didn’t know it because I was in survival mode … I just wanted my cat to live,” she said.

Her son’s 2006 Hyundai Elantra was parked out front, and Valente thought she only needed to make it to the car to escape. But the engine wouldn’t start, no matter how many times she turned the key.

The flames hit her house. She got out and ran, Chelsea’s carrier in hand.

The rubber strap on her left sandal broke. She kicked off the shoes and kept running, she said, not looking back.

“I just knew my house was gone, I just knew it,” she said. “I just kept on the move in my socks and feet.”

Chelsea, 9, curled up in a ball at the back of the cage, but never made a sound and was a “real trooper,” she said.

Ash, embers and thick smoke cut Valente’s visibility to zero. She didn’t know where to run. She pinballed through the park, dodging from one moment of relative safety to the next.

For about eight hours, as the fire ate through one structure and tree after another, she careened and cowered, never considering abandoning Chelsea.

She hid behind benches and in two cars as the fire jumped from house to house, laying waste to the homes of her friends and neighbors. She watched as the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, swirled and swallowed the trailer of the park’s manager in what she said looked like a “fire tornado.”

“I was fearful,” Valente said, her voice steady days later. “I wasn’t sure we were getting out alive. There were many times when I was taking shelter and I started to cry, but I realized I don’t have time to cry. I have to move, I can’t just sit here and bawl like a baby.”

At one point, Valente ducked behind a decorative boulder in a neighbor’s yard hoping it would shield her as embers burned small holes in her shirt and pants.

“I had to wait for every house to burn down so I could see where I could take shelter and that’s when I saw the laundry room was not touched … I tried the laundry room door and it was open,” Valente said.

“I ran in there, closed the door. … It was frightening,” she said “A tree caught fire right in front of the laundry room my first day in there. That was scary because there was no where else to go.”

Valente hunkered down in the small space, pulling the drapes off the windows and wrapping herself and Chelsea in them to ward off the chill.

For the next two days, with smoke still thick, homes smoldering and no way to call for help, Valente and Chelsea stayed in the utility room.

She found a hose outside. A little water still trickled from it. She filled Chelsea’s bowl and the pair took turns sipping from it. She didn’t have any food. A few emergency vehicles sped past on Clark Road, one of the only four routes out of town, but by then pain had set in for Valente and she couldn’t make it as far as the road without leaving Chelsea.

“I spent two days going outside screaming for help, as loud as I could,” she said. “But my shoulder started to hurt. I got to the point where I couldn’t carry (Chelsea) anymore, and I wasn’t going to leave her behind. The emergency vehicles only went by twice. And there were still little camp fires all around, and it wasn’t safe to go out.”

Acles, Valente’s son, was frantically searching for his mother, fearing the worst. He had tried to make it back to the mobile home park the day of the fire, but the roads were impassible, some closed and others clogged as Paradise’s 27,000 residents tried to escape.

“When I realized I couldn’t get into Paradise and couldn’t get to my mother, I went to every shelter looking for her,” Acles said. “I was thinking that she didn’t make it out and she might be dead.”

Acles drove more than 200 miles and searched and called for 56 hours, he said.

When he finally got in touch with the Butte County Sheriff’s dispatch, they told him 400 people were in line ahead of him with the same story of missing loved ones. They told him they would send someone to her address when they could.

“I had zero information, “Acles said. “All I could do was call, and sit and wait.”

At 4 a.m. on Saturday, three days after the fire started, he got a call from a Butte County Sheriff’s deputy.

His mother was alive.

A deputy had pulled into the mobile home park about an hour earlier, the lights on his patrol car flashing red and blue through the still-heavy smoke.

Valente was lying on the floor of the laundry room when she saw the colors flickering through the window. It was so cold she couldn’t sleep, she said.

The patrol car passed the laundry room and slowly moved up the hill toward the heaping remains of Valente’s home in space 52, but she chased after him in her socks, covered in soot.

“I waved my hands and screamed until he stopped,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m safe, I’m being rescued.’ I actually gave him a hug.”

Valente and the officer, whose name she does not know, put Chelsea in the car. He turned on the heater and gave her some bottled water, Valente said.

“The officer couldn’t have been nicer,” she said. “He was sweet as pie. I wish I could call him and thank him for saving my life.”

The deputy called Acles, then drove Valente out of the dark and down the mountain to meet her son along Highway 70, south of Oroville.

“I couldn’t be happier to be alive,” Valente said from Roseville where she is now living. She has no regrets about risking her own life to save Chelsea.

“The cat made it through,” Valente said. “She seems a little depressed … but I’ve just been loving on her.”

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©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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