Decorative banner image

November 25, 2018

One Camp Fire Teacher's Story: She Evacuated Students, Then Fled For Her Life

One Camp Fire Teacher's Story:  She Evacuated Students, Then Fled For Her Life

This is what happens when a wildfire comes closer than expected, and you find yourself taking care of your students rather than yourself, your house, or even your own children.  This is a teacher's nightmare, and the type of emergency that schools all have monthly drills for, and yet nothing could have prepared them for what really happened that day.  Indeed, if anyone had predicted it, I think that nobody would have believed the events that transpired in Paradise, California, in Butte County.  

One Camp Fire Teacher's Story- How She Evacuated her Kindergartners and Fled for Her Life


Being a Californian, I was aware of the wildfires and the tragedy of all of the lost homes.  My husband and I have been watching the news with horror and disbelief at the number of confirmed deaths, 87, with nearly 500 people still unaccounted for at the time of this writing!  Propelled by fierce winds and fueled by forests dry from the five hottest years on record, evacuation orders were given as fast as officials knew they were necessary.  But the single road out of Paradise was quickly jammed with 20,000 residents all attempting to evacuate simultaneously. 


Ponderosa Elementary School Kindergarten Rooms, Burned Out


However, this news suddenly became personal when one of the Kindergarten Teachers from Ponderosa School, Amy Keene, telephoned our HeidiSongs office and asked (as she held back tears) if we might be able to replace her videos and resources, either as a donation or at a deep discount.  We quickly decided to replace everything and her teammates needed at no cost.  We got a similar email from another teacher at Paradise School, and we will be doing the same for them.

I wanted to write to Amy to send her my condolences, at least!  And she replied with humble gratefulness, and told me just a tiny bit of her story.  Since this sort of emergency scenario tends to be in most teachers' minds, I asked her if she had students in class at the time of the fire, and she said YES!  I was stunned, because none of these details had reached the news in my area.  


Ponderosa School Burned Out Classroom Camp Fire


I'm sure you will agree that what Amy, her Kindergarten Teammates, and her community went through was absolutely terrifying, and they can really use all of the help they can get!  Any teacher that has put their students' safety ahead of their own in a life threatening situation is a hero in my view, and deserves all of the accolades and recognition possible!  And every teacher knows how long it takes to build up classroom supplies, especially at the early childhood level.  The amount of manipulatives, toys, and books needed in each classroom are just mind boggling!  So please share these links with anyone whom you think might be willing and able to donate.  For example, I sent the links to my mother, my sister, and my whole extended family and asked them to donate- and they did!

Here is a link to donate to help the Kindergarten Team at Amy's School, Ponderosa Elementary.  (Only Kindergarten and TK lost their classrooms; first through fifth grade is still standing.)


Here is a link to donate to help Paradise Elementary School.  Their entire school was burned to the ground. (See photo below.  All other pictures are of Ponderosa Elementary.)


Here is a link to for an Amazon Wish List for things that they need to begin recreating educational centers and activities.  My friend Liz Williams, who teaches TK/K at Richfield Elementary in Corning, CA has graciously volunteered to organize this endeavor at her school!  She has recruited her PTA to copy, laminate, and cut, etc. as many centers and activities as they possibly can for ALL TEN of the KINDERGARTEN TEACHERS IN PARADISE THAT LOST THEIR CLASSROOMS TO THE FIRE!!!  You can help by purchasing something from the wish list and sending it to Liz and her crew so that they can assist these brave teachers!  Supplies should be sent to Liz at this address:  Richfield Elementary School, Attn. Liz Williams, 23875 River Road, Corning, CA 96021.  Liz' school is less than an hour's drive from Paradise, so this will work out well!  Below is a photo of Liz and me!  :)


Liz Williams and Heidi Butkus


Paradise Elementary School, Camp Fire


I asked Amy if she would be willing to share her experiences, and she gave me permission to reprint them here for you.  These are Amy's experiences in Amy's own words, with very little editing on my part.  I just had to string together the information from several emails so that it was in chronological order.  You'll see my questions for her in bold, and Amy's words are in italics.  Amy and one of her students are pictured below.


Amy Keene and student


Amy tells about her entire Kindergarten team's experiences (see photo below.) Their names are Abbie, Lisa, Zina and Babs (Not pictured:  Camellia, who job shares one day per week with Lisa.)


Ponderosa Kindergarten Team

Your escape must have been terrifying!  Were students already in class?  What happened?

Not all of the children came to school that day.  Many parents realized the wind and smoke meant danger.  At 7:45 students were sent inside classes because the smoke began to get really bad quickly.  Two of the k teachers brought their students to my room.  We knew we couldn’t really think about teaching.  I put a movie on for them to watch. Ten minutes or so later our principal came over the intercom for us to check our email.  (At one point and time the TK teacher showed me the embers falling by our classrooms.). By 8:00 AM we were evacuating.

His email said he sent out an all call to pick up students but for us to start calling.  We all began using our cell phones to call parents.  One by one parents picked up their children.  

Then another intercom announcement stated to bring all remaining students to the cafeteria.  I had two students remaining.  One of them was picked up from the cafeteria and the other ended up on the bus. 

Things were a bit hectic to say the least.  At one point our principal said we had to get on the bus.  For some reason many of us didn’t follow those directions. There were 22 students on the bus. Two teachers joined them.  I had my student’s parent’s cell in my phone.  

The plan was for the bus to go to our other elementary in town. Those plans soon changed as the fire spread through our town. 


None of our drills helped to prepare us for that day.   Our town had drills to get everyone out of town if we ever had a fire.  I don’t care if the top military official came up with a plan, it wouldn’t have worked.  The wind caused the fire to spread way too fast. Our school looked like nighttime within 30 minutes of arriving to school.  As I took the second to last student of mine to his parents’ friend’s van, ashes fell in my eyes. I told him to look down.  

One by one teachers began to leave.  We all have different stories.  Abbie was on the bus.  Her story is all over the news.  Abbie lost her home. Babs turned right onto the road in front of our school.  She quickly reached a point where she was turned around.  She then got out of her car and ran.  She was heading back toward the school. A fireman told her to get into someone’s car.  She did.  They hosed them down until it was safe to keep driving.  As they drove back by our school Babs saw our classes burning down. Babs ended up in the Kmart parking lot. She saw another teacher there. She got into her car.  They sat there for several hours. Then it was finally safe enough to leave town.  Babs also lost her home. 

 Lisa turned left.  She then made another left and tried to go up to Magalia (right by Paradise and where I live). There is a back way to leave the area.  Soon she realized that wouldn’t work because it was burning.  She then turned around to go to Chico.  Traffic was at a stand still and she was beginning to panic.  She noticed a fourth grade teacher was driving behind her.   She convinced him to get in her car. They realized they could run faster than traffic was moving so they too got out and ran.  They ran for about three miles before getting into a stranger’s car. The stranger took them to Chico where loved ones picked them up at a parking lot.  Lisa lives in Chico and her car is there. 

I turned left.  My head couldn’t wrap around the traffic not moving.  I thought I was going to Magalia to get my cats.  I soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.  In less than 1/8 of a mile there was a fire.  I honestly had a hard time believing it.  I rolled down my window and asked someone if that is what I was seeing.  I was finally able to turn onto Wagstaff and then traffic stopped again. The flames were on the right of me.  I was calling and already telling my husband I didn’t think I was going to survive it.  I then saw a big truck go on the wrong side of the road and quickly followed.  I am a rule follower but that day I broke many. 

I got to our Kmart parking lot and pulled into it.  PG&E had just cut down most of the trees there the prior week so I thought it would be safe.  I sat in my car for sometime. A man walked by and told me I would be okay. He said he was a minister and knew God would watch out for me.  I told him I knew it too but that he needed to get back into his car. I kept calling family members, my husband and friends.  Traffic was at a stand still on the roads and I didn’t know which way to go. I could hear one explosion after another. My nephew works for the town and was directing traffic in another part of town. He told me to get to Skyway. That is our main road that takes you to Chico. 

I then saw a tree start on fire behind the store. I knew it was time to begin driving again.  I got onto Clark Road and traffic wasn’t moving.  I once again started following people down the wrong side of the road. At one point a woman with two children walked by me. I asked her if she wanted to get into the car. She just asked to use my phone to call her husband.  He was several cars behind me.  She told him to park and run to get into her car.  One of her children kept saying let’s go back, let’s go back.  A man was standing outside of his home looking up in the sky.  I yelled for him to get in his car and leave. 

I had a hard time being in gridlock traffic.  I knew I needed to get to the next main road (Bille) and turn right.  I began to inch my way through traffic and then it began to move faster.  The husband of the woman who borrowed my phone called.  I had already forgotten she’d used my phone.  Luckily he kept explaining it to me and I told him traffic was moving and I wasn’t sure where she was.  ( I called the number several hours later. They all escaped together and were safe).

I finally made it to Bile and things began to look up.  The sky was brighter.  I took Bille to Skyway and started thanking God.  I called my mom and told her things were better. Traffic was still slow though.  My husband told me that Skyway was open in all lanes to help us escape quicker yet traffic was slow.  Once again I started going through in a lane that wasn’t for outgoing traffic and began passing cars.  We suddenly had to merge though for emergency personnel.  About two miles down flames appeared again. Once more my mind couldn’t comprehend how the fire traveled so quickly.  I thought of getting out and running but then thought of embers falling on me. I just kept driving. 


Then the worst part of the nightmare began.  Both sides of the road were on fire.  Embers were all over the road and cars were everywhere.  And it was pitch black.  Something snapped and I said today is not my day to die.  I raised one hand to God and yelled at Him as I gassed the car and steered with the other hand.  I just kept yelling at God I wasn’t going to die. I don’t know how I made it through other than Jesus did take the wheel!  I made it through the flames and into the light of day again.  I then started thanking God.  I realized I ended up on the wrong side of Skyway but it was okay since all lanes were open to travel out of that hell.  At one point before making it out, I called my daughter in Denver to tell her I loved her.  Luckily I was able to call and tell her I made it.

My house is still standing. We aren’t in it yet.  Houses burned less than 1/4 mile from it.  The electricity hasn’t been restored.  We are waiting to go there with our adjuster.  

Zina was in Sacramento that day. She did lose her home. So, there is the shortened version of our horror story.  

My husband drove back roads to get the cats. I sat in his office waiting for hours not knowing if he was okay. The last time I spoke to him I yelled at him to turn around and get back to Chico.  Then his phone stopped getting service. 

We are so lucky every child made it out alive and all of the PUSD employees did too!  The 1st through 5th grade classes are standing.  The kinder classrooms were portables and modulars, and they are all lost.  But, all of our students are displaced, and three out of five of us lost our homes too.  


Next week we will be finding out where we will be teaching.  We plan on being ready for students Dec. 3rd.  There is a place in Oroville and a place in Chico that we may land.  We honestly have no clue what that will look like- too many unknowns.   Both of those places are about thirty to forty minute drives from Paradise. 

We have all stayed in touch with our students and families through remind and class dojos. Many students have relocated and enrolled in other schools.  Some are even out of state.  I think about half of my students will continue with PUSD, but have made it clear they want me as their teacher.  I think that is how most families feel about other teachers as well.


Question:  Have you had nightmares about your experiences?

I have dreamed about it several times.  I think most of us are.  I think I will need counseling in the future. The day in and day out of driving by the destruction will add to the heartache. 

I am more than happy to accept any donations.  They can send items to my husband’s office.  Between all of us, I am sure all donated items will be used.  


Clark Pest Control

Amy Keene, C/O Richard Keene

180 Eaton Rd

Chico, CA 95973



One Camp Fire Teacher's Story:  How She Evacuated Her Students and Fled Through a Fiery Inferno