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The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Leaving Paradise; City College professor describes loss, heroism and human kindness in wake of the Camp Fire


City College English professor Ken Kiehn in his classroom with the smoke from the Camp Fire hanging in the background. Jason Pierce | Co-editor-in-chief | [email protected]

Leaving Paradise

City College Professor describes loss, heroism and human kindness in wake of the Camp Fire


Ken Kiehn, an adjunct English composition professor at City College, left his house in Paradise Nov. 8 at 7 a.m. for his other teaching job at Butte College in Chico. He was aware that there was a fire miles away near Concow but had no idea the Camp Fire was headed for his home.

At 8 a.m. Kiehn’s wife called, warning him not to go to their house and saying that she and their children had left. Despite his wife’s warning, Kiehn hastily returned to Paradise, only to find his family’s home engulfed in flames.

“I got there at 8:30 a.m.,” said Kiehn. “The house was on fire. There were 20-foot flames. The trunks of the trees in the back behind my house were on fire. I thought about getting something, and I looked at it and I thought, ‘If I go in there, I might not be coming out,’ so I just left.”

Six days afterward, Kiehn recalled the experience of being immersed in the intense fire.

“It was sort of like being an ant in a fireplace, looking up at the flames,” said Kiehn. “The flames were huge, and the fire was moving way, way too fast.”

High winds fueled the flames, and Kiehn said the fire took matters into its own hands.

“At a certain point I got the feeling that it was making its own weather,” said Kiehn. “When fires get big enough, sometimes they cause weird changes in normal weather patterns.”

Kiehn needed gas after leaving his burning home. He drove to the nearest gas station, only to find it was completely overrun with people.  

“There was a line out the door,” said Kiehn. “I barely made it to Chico.”

After managing to make it to Chico on a near-empty tank, Keihn said the smoke cloud covered the city.

“The sun was bright red,” said Kiehn.

Kiehn said his wife and kids were forced to flee from their house at 7:30 a.m., but even in the face of imminent danger they were able to help others evacuate.

“There were pieces of charred wood and ash falling into the yard at that time,” said Kiehn. “She took the dogs and the kids and ran. Didn’t take anything from the house, didn’t have a chance to. She actually helped evacuate five elderly people who live there. One was waiting for her car to get fixed, so if (my wife) hadn’t got her out, she probably would have died.”

Many Paradise residents were taken by surprise when the fire hit with such force and speed, said Kiehn.

“A lot of people didn’t know it was coming,” said Kiehn. “The whole town went up in a few hours.”

Because of the speed at which the fire overtook Paradise, Kiehn fears for the worst.

“The fire came so fast both in Paradise and Concow; I think they are going to be finding a lot of bodies,” said Kiehn. “They are bringing up forensic people. They are bringing up anthropologists to try to figure out whos who and where the bodies are.”

After making it out of Paradise alive, Kiehn’s next move was to find a place for his family to stay.

“On Thursday I called my insurance company, and they got us a motel in Red Bluff until Sunday,” said Kiehn. “Then we didn’t have a place, so we went to stay with my mother-in-law in Auburn, and that’s where we are now.”

Thousands of Butte County residents have been displaced from the blaze, taking up refuge in a multitude of places.

“There’s been an exodus,” said Kiehn. “There were lots of Paradise people at the hotel in Red Bluff where we were staying. They are staying in Walmart. They are staying in churches. The Walmart parking lot is full of people.”

Kiehn said one of his greatest concerns following the destructive fire is how the community will be able to rebuild among rumblings of insurance issues.

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In addition to the blazing speed of the fire, Kiehn said that a lack of a proper communication system to alert residents contributed to the chaos. “There was no centralized warning system to let us know what was going on.”

Kiehn said he did receive an odd phone call before the fire incinerated his home.

“We did get a phone call three days before the fire from PG&E saying that there was high risk of fire and that there would probably be rolling blackouts or breaks in service,” said Kiehn. “I thought this was very weird three or four days before the fire started.”

Kiehn’s family also received a similar phone call from PG&E the night before the fire.

“We’ve never gotten a phone call like that before,” said Kiehn. “We’ve lived there for nine years.”

According to a CNBC news article, “An attorney for a group of victims of the so-called Camp Fire in Northern California on Wednesday alleged that there’s ‘pretty overwhelming’ evidence that PG&E was at fault for the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.”

Michael Danko, the attorney for the Camp Fire victims, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court accusing the utility “of negligence in the destructive wildfire,” according to CNBC.

As he thinks about how to move on from his family’s loss, Kiehn said his brother offered helpful advice.

“I talked to (my brother) on the phone, and he quoted (German philosopher) Friedrich Nietzsche:  ‘When your house burns down, you weep in the ashes, and then you have lunch,’” said Kiehn. “And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working on functional stuff like calling the insurance company trying to get us a place, calling PG&E, getting a new P.O. box. Then I just take some time out and I meditate, do some stretching, try to relax my body, have a little bit of beer or something and take a rest.”

City College English professor Ken Kiehn speaks with students in his English composition class six days after losing his home in the Camp Fire. Jason Pierce | Co-editor-in-chief | [email protected]

Kiehn said the realization of his family’s livelihood having been destroyed comes in waves.

“You realize like, ‘Oh, all my wedding pictures are gone.’ Or, you know, all the stuff we had for our family. All the stuff I’ve given my wife: gone,” said Kiehn. “Then you try not to think about that, and you go back to doing something functional, and you just sort of be-bop between those, because it comes up in layers.”

Kiehn is worried about the impact losing their home to the fire will have on his kids.

“My youngest son is 7, and he was like, ‘That was the house I was born in, and it’s gone,’” said Kiehn.

“He was born in the master bedroom; we had a home birth.”

Paradise was a close-knit town, Kiehn recalled, and that familiarity makes the loss particularly devastating.

“I lived in that town for a long time, and you get to know everybody. It’s a very different experience than living in Sacramento,” said Kiehn. I was looking at the picture of the intersection of Piercen and Skyway, and I can tell you the names of the people who own those businesses. And now it’s all gone. There’s no chance that that’s going to ever be the same as it was.”

Kiehn said the remains of Paradise seem comparable to a war zone.

“It’s like what I imagine, because I haven’t been in a war, but I imagine what a bombed-out city would feel like,” said Kiehn. “You just keep on calling people and making sure that they’re OK, and they got their family out. And thank God, all my friends so far have made it out alive, that I’ve been able to contact. But there are a whole bunch of people that I haven’t been able to contact, and I’m just hoping for the best for them.”

Despite the terrible tragedy of Paradise burning to the ground, Kiehn said there has been a positive takeaway.

“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of human generosity and greatness of heart in this process,” said Kiehn. “There are good people. Two of my colleagues have offered me places to stay, and so have probably 20 friends, including some ex-students, who found me out on Facebook and just said, ‘Hey, come stay with us.’ It’s really beautiful to see people come together like that.”



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