According to Wikipedia, the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history to date and is among the world’s deadliest wildfires; it’s the sixth-deadliest U.S. wildfire overall. Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started on November 8, 2018, in Butte County in Northern California. After exhibiting extreme fire behavior, an urban firestorm formed in the densely populated foothill town of Paradise. The fire caused at least 86 civilian fatalities, injured 12 civilians and five firefighters, covered an area of 153,336 acres, and destroyed 18,804 structures, with most of the damage occurring within the first four hours. As of November 19, insured damage was estimated to be $7.5–10 billion. The fire reached 100 percent containment after seventeen days on November 25, 2018.
This is the story of a modern-day hero, although Ray Johnson would never claim that title. He is a man who tempted fate by putting his life and all his worldly possessions on the line so that the hundreds of strangers who gathered in a desolate, concrete parking lot would survive a furious inferno. Ray was among hundreds of other firefighters who battled the Camp Fire in November of 2018 and was put to the ultimate test—retreat or stand and fight. Thousands of people’s lives were on the line; chaos and panic were everywhere. Firefighters are trained to extinguish fire with the most modern technologies, but when Mother Nature unleashes her ugly side, there is nothing to do but seek refuge. Ray was there that day, in that parking lot, making sure hundreds in his community were safe, knowing in the back of his mind that everything that he and his family had ever accumulated was being devoured by the fire during those same hours.
Ray Johnson, a native of Paradise, California, started mountain biking after working and earning enough money during the summer of ’92 to buy a Gary Fisher. Immediately addicted to the sport, he and his high school buddy Todd Booth raced competitively for the next few years, traveling around the region and scoring podiums at NORBA Nationals in Napa and Mammoth. They logged countless miles on the local Paradise Pines POA trails with the Paradise Mountain Bike Club. A couple of years ago Ray once again saved up and purchased his dream ride—an Intense Carbine custom build with an Eagle drivetrain. He logged nearly 5000 miles on it. He managed to squeeze in rides between working shifts at the firehouse while still spending time at home with his kids Madeline and Noah and his wife Jennifer. They were high school sweethearts, and Jennifer works for Cal Fire. However, having a prosthetic leg makes it difficult for her to ride anything but her utility trike, so Ray acquired a Bridgestone tandem mountain bike so he and his wife could share weekend rides together. This was quality time, because they finally got to share his passion together.
On the night of November 7th at around 2 a.m. in Magalia, Fire Station 33 received a call of downed trees from the extraordinary winds. Ray sensed trouble that night, but he had no idea what was in store. At 6:30 a.m., Station 33 got a bell for a fire near Paradise nearly 10 miles away. With 50-mph winds, the firefighters knew they were in for a battle, but en route to the location of the call, they witnessed embers landing and causing spot fires. This was bad, really bad. As Ray drove the water tender, he immediately knew they would not be fighting this fire; they would be saving lives. His truck—in fact, all the trucks in his station and every single truck in the adjacent cities—was not going to be any match for this fire. All that mattered at this point was saving as many people as possible.
The crew’s priorities immediately changed, and they went into survival mode. They located a parking lot and set up a perimeter. The fire surrounded the city, and the residents had nowhere safe to go. People were abandoning their cars and running. Others drove and navigated their way to this patch of concrete that would turn out to be their safe haven. For nearly three hours, Ray and his crew defended nearly 300 people who were able to seek refuge on their makeshift concrete shelter. The fire consumed the city; however, everyone in their safe zone miraculously survived. A few hours later the CHP led a caravan of hundreds from that parking lot, collecting others along the way down Highway 191 to safety.
On the way to the original call, Ray phoned Jennifer, warning her of the firestorm heading their way. He told her to take Noah and Madeline to her work at the Cal Fire Clear Camp Station instead of to school that morning. He would not hear from his family again for the next five hours. They originally went to the fire station, but learning of the fire threat to their home, Jennifer decided to gamble and try to rescue their golden retriever, two cats, goldfish and hamster. En route to their home, the Johnsons found themselves completely surrounded by fire. The problem was, they were also caught in gridlock traffic. Going into mother-bear mode Jennifer rallied their red Subaru Outback through ditches and across lawns, weaving through oncoming traffic. Madeline and Noah were screaming in the back seat as smoke filled the car. Jennifer maneuvered the car through the fire, narrowly escaping death, and managed to find her way back to safety in Chico. The Subaru tires were blistered from the fire but somehow didn’t rupture, rolling directly through the fire and enabling the family to escape certain death.
The Johnsons’ house was burned to the ground. Fortunately, their next-door neighbor had loaded up their golden retriever and brought her to safety during the evacuation. The rest of the pets were not so lucky. Nothing else was spared. The only possessions that the family had were the items with them in their cars. Not one single object was loaded up and taken from the house. There was no time; there was no warning. Everything that they owned, collected and cherished was gone forever.
Meanwhile, Ray was relocated to try to save the old train depot in Magalia. He and a team of firefighters found themselves surrounded by fire once again at the train depot. The fire ripped down the canyon, propelled by the gale-force winds, and the firefighters found themselves in instant danger. The train depot was lost, but the firefighters were able to make yet another narrow escape. Upon retreat, the firemen were then reassigned to the Old Magalia Church, which was another designated safety zone. Ray and his team had been going wide open since the very beginning of the fire, and they were approaching 48 hours straight. They were relieved for 12 hours to sleep and try to recover, and then went right back into it. Returning to duty, he took his water truck to the reservoir to fill firetrucks. Both Paradise and Magalia were out of water due to the devastation of the fires, and the water lines had all been compromised. Ray placed pumps in the reservoir to fill his tanker, and he was able to replenish the firetrucks with water in about 15 minutes. The firemen would then drive anywhere from 2 to 10 miles, wherever they were deployed to, and in most cases would empty the truck within 15 minutes and return to Ray’s truck once again for a refill. He continued this until Sunday, November 18th, four days after the fire initially started.
Immediately after the fire, the Johnson family sought housing in Chico. Tens of thousands of people were now homeless in the immediate area. Ray and his family were fortunate to secure a place to live and start the rebuilding process. They had their vehicles but nothing else. They were alive, and that was all that mattered to them. Everything else was just “stuff.”
On December 13th, one of Ray Johnson’s close riding buddies, Torey Feldhaus, invited him and a group of friends to the Secret Trail Brewing Company. Ray had been on the news with an American flag in the background talking about his community and “Paradise strong,” becoming somewhat of a local celebrity by bringing positivity to the locals. The brewery set up a special tour for Ray and his crew. Torey’s house had survived, so he wanted to do something to help Ray through these tragic times. What could he do to bring back positivity and happiness to his friend who had done so much for others? Torey was on a mission to get his buddy back on a bike. He e-mailed Intense and sent them the story. Ray loved his Intense, and Torey couldn’t picture him on any other bike. Christmas was approaching, and the holiday spirit was in the air. His e-mail found its way to the director of rider experience, Jenn Gabrielli, and Ray’s incredible story piqued her interest. Running her plan by the CEO, she was able to ship out a brand-new carbon Carbine to Torey in Chico. He immediately took the new Carbine to Campus Bikes in Chico, California, and Tyler, the shop mechanic, built and tuned it up at no charge.
Back at the brewery, Ray found himself admiring this brand-new Intense Carbine, which was leaning against the door at the end of the tour. Torey walked over and said to Ray, “That’s your bike.” You can imagine what happened next. It was tears, beers and best friends having an emotional moment. The whole community that had bonded through tragedy was now healing and rebuilding. Ray’s empty house now has at least one seat in it.
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