Though the Camp Fire is a state away, the Hood River community is still affected by the devastation via friends, family and former residents who suffered losses.
Since it began in Butte County, Calif., on Nov. 8, the Camp Fire has killed 77 people and destroyed 10,500 homes, according to a CNN article. As of press time, the fire had burned 151,373 acres and was 70 percent contained.
Among the former Hood River County residents who have lost their homes is the Schuepbach/Merz family. Lynne Schuepbach moved to Hood River in the early ‘70s and worked at Hood River Valley High School for more than 30 years before retiring in 2006. She moved to Paradise, Calif., about two years ago, and lived with her daughter and son-in-law, Laurel and Jesse Merz; three young grandchildren, Alana, Joseph and Charlotte; and Jesse’s father, Lew Merz Jr. Laurel and Jesse were both born at Hood River Memorial Hospital and both graduated from HRVHS, classes of 1998 and 1992, respectively. They were married in White Salmon in September 2000.
Lew is the former owner of Merz Orchards in Parkdale and graduated from Wy’east, class of 1967.
The family lost their home and all of its contents in the fire, but safely escaped with their four cats and two dogs, Jesse said.
“We were separated when this thing hit. I had just dropped 10-year-old Charlotte off at Ponderosa Elementary school and had stopped at the little corner store to get gas when Jesse called to say we needed to pack to leave. I rushed home to pack without getting the gas. As soon as I got there, he messaged me to go back to get Charlotte — off I went,” Schuepbach said in an email to Riverside Community Church.
“I headed up the mile and a half to get Charlie, but was stopped by the evacuation of the hospital between our house and the school. I turned around, got on to the closest cross street and got locked into the slowest traffic I’ve ever experienced — and immediately lost cell reception. I was frantic to get to Charlotte, couldn’t let anyone know what happened,” she continued.
Eventually, she had just enough of a signal to receive a text from Charlotte saying that she and the other students at Ponderosa were being bused away from the school together.
“In the meantime, Jesse picked up our eldest, Alana (14), from school in Chico and rushed back to our house. Joseph, the middle (12), was home unwell, so was there, ‘safe,’” she said. Lew, Jesse and the two kids packed up a few essentials and the family’s pets, and waited for Schuepbach to return with Charlotte.
“You could already see flames and hear transformers exploding.”
They were able to wait about half an hour before the police forced them to go, she said.
Laurel was safe in Redding, about 86-miles away, taking a test for her Nurse Practitioner program.
“At that point, houses and yards on either side of the road started burning from falling embers and I knew I had to just leave ...” she said.
“People behind me were panicked, honking their horns constantly, thinking it might pick up the pace. Some were leaving their cars, grabbing their pet carriers and trying to walk out … It took about an hour to make a 10 minute drive, but we finally got to the first intersection.
“I was out of gas, but thought I could make it down to Jesse’s college and the gas station there if I could just turn left down the road ... (but) I was in the wrong lane for that (and) pleading did not work. So, I drove through the intersection in a bit of a panic. I knew I would not make it much further,” she said.
“Flames were coming at us from about five-blocks away — right in the heart of town.”
Her fuel light now “burning like the Eye of Sauron,” she noticed a motor home stopped next to her and asked the driver if he could give her a ride. After some thought, he agreed.
“So, I parked in a parking lot by a cement building, hoping the van might be protected, grabbed what little I had and scampered across to the motor home. Bless his soul, he let me in, though the wind was blowing so hard I had to use both hands to close the door.”
The van — which had just been paid off — didn’t survive the fire.
It took them about four hours to travel the 23-miles between Paradise and Chico. Emergency services had opened up all four lanes of the highway to outgoing traffic, but “still it was stop and go. Mostly stop,” she said. All the while, Schuepbach could see buildings burning on both sides of the highway.
“At one point, a power pole had burned and fallen in the road. The line was drooping and caught on the vehicle, but we couldn’t stop. Fortunately, the line was dead,” she said.
When the pair finally reached Chico, Schuepbach was dropped off at a Costco, where she was able to charge her phone and get in contact with the rest of her family.
“Jesse, Lew and the kids were still on the road, but safe. Laurel was on her way. We had no idea where Charlotte’s bus was.”
While Schuepbach didn’t know this at the time, the students at Ponderosa Elementary School were bused from school together.
Charlotte’s bus was the last to leave, she said, and was rerouted due to the spreading fire.
Schuepbach said that Charlotte sat next to one of the teachers accompanying the students on the bus “and told her, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but you’ve always been my favorite teacher. I love you and if I’m going to die, at least I’m with you.’”
In an interview with CNN, Charlotte said she tried to stay calm and recalled “going to my happy place” on the journey. “It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked,” she told CNN.At one point, she said, the bus driver — Kevin McKay, who had only been on the job a few months before the fire — tore up one of his t-shirts, doused water on the pieces and passed them around so the students could breathe.
“It was a six-hour drive through hellish conditions, but when he got them to safety, he stopped at a pizza place and fed them ... a born hero,” she said.
Laurel was able to pick up Charlotte before rendezvousing with the rest of the family in Chico. One of Laurel’s friends picked up Schuepbach from the Costco, “and half an hour later we were all together,” she said.
Schuepbach is currently in Bingen, Wash. with her son, while the rest of the family is living out of a motel in Redding, Calif. They’re hoping to find a house to rent-to-buy in Chico.
Riverside Community Church is working to put together a fund for the Schuepbach/Merz family and invites community members to send donations to the church, P.O. Box 656. Checks should be made out to Riverside Community Church, Schuepbach/Merz Fund.
GoFundMe fundraisers are also set up for Tanah Stewart and Dave and Trish Colwell, other former Hood River County residents who lost their homes in the Camp Fire.