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John Deatrick: Paradise Lost

Finding Perspective and Gratitude in Tragedy

For most of us, it is a few minutes segment on the news and then we’re on to the next story. For those involved though, it is an enduring nightmare. Time seems to slow down to a crawl – each minute feels like an hour – each hour a day – each day a lifetime.

John Deatrick knows best because he recently lived the nightmare. “People see what’s on TV, and they see the videos, but it’s much worse. It was unreal,” he said. “You hear about Hurricane Katrina, and I know it was awful, but I didn’t really understand what people were going through. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I didn’t see the suffering, I didn’t see the people trying to get their lives back together. I feel like I have a much greater perspective on that now. It’s surreal. I still can’t believe, five months later, that it happened.”

ESCAPE FROM PARADISE

At 8:30 a.m. on the morning of November 8, 2018, John and Donna Deatrick were sleeping soundly in their Paradise, California home when their phone rang, and rang again. It was John’s mother, Joan, who lived 20 minutes away in Chico. She was frantically telling him that that there was a fire in his hometown that was getting out of hand.

Such fires had become common in Northern California in recent years, so John realized immediately that his mom was worried for good reason.

As there was little gas in his car, filling the tank would need to be step one to whatever would come next. He didn’t get very far. The gridlock began just a few blocks down the road. Feeling his own panic begin to rise, he rushed back home to pick up Donna and the cats, knowing he had to get out of town as fast as possible. As they were packing the car, they could feel an intensifying heat approaching. When the power cut out, they looked at each other for a long moment, locked the front door and drove away.

To say the drive was harrowing is a vast understatement. Gray and black smoke billowing, fires visible on both sides of the road, driving perhaps 5 to 10 mph in the gridlock, starting and stopping, worried that other drivers might panic and flee their cars leaving them trapped in a growing inferno. The smell of tar made their breathing shallow and they wondered if their tires were melting from the heat. “We felt like we were standing in front of a fireplace,” John recalls, “with massive amounts of heat coming from both sides of the road.” 

STAYING POSITIVE

When they were moving forward, John and Donna were able to keep their wits about them and remain positive…until traffic would come to a complete halt! When their gas light came on indicating that they were just about out of fuel, they became silent in their panic. What was there to say? They knew they’d awakened that morning to the gravest crisis of their lives.

“One of the most memorable things about the drive,” John recalls, “was hearing all of the propane tanks exploding.” Describing it as a war zone, he further said, “You’re just sitting in traffic hearing explosions all over the place, wondering if we’re next.”

The town of Paradise had been growing rapidly in recent years so was undergoing a road widening project. This was no time to obey rules meant for normal circumstances, so John weaved through the cones and barriers and started a second lane of traffic. Many of his fellow townspeople followed suit and were able to move away from the fires more steadily, if not rapidly.

More than four hours since they’d left home, normally a thirty-minute drive, they made it to the neighboring town of Durham. They pulled into the long queue in a blessedly open gas station and ran out of gas just as they were pulling up to the pump.

As bad as this living nightmare was, somebody must have been watching over the Deatricks on this day. They were safe and able to reach John’s mother by landline. The cellular service around Paradise was down and she had been nervously waiting for any news. She was able to see the fires from as far away as Chico and felt great relief when she heard their voices.

In the most circuitous and frightening route imaginable, they finally made it to Joan’s house in Chico, a total of 5.5 hours after they’d left home. All they had were the clothes on their back, the cats, the clean laundry they’d thrown into a suitcase, and a couple of family heirlooms. They had packed up all their important papers but realized later that they’d forgotten them in the rush to leave. But they were safe…or were they?

Later that afternoon, Joan was notified that she needed to evacuate her home as the fire continued to spread to the outskirts of Chico! As they momentarily stood in stunned silence, John took the lead. Noting that one harrowing escape from the fire had been enough for one day, they got back on the road and spent the night in a safe zone at the home of another relative.

A NEW BEGINNING

A few days later, John posted a message on his Facebook account that, to this day, I find amazing. In it, he expressed his gratitude and described all that he and Donna were thankful for. This is what he posted:

Nov 12

I am not sure I’ll ever be able to adequately thank everyone for their support these past two days but I’ll make it a goal of mine to try my best. There is obviously heartache from the loss of our house and everything we own but there’s so much to be thankful for.

Sorry this will be a long post.

-Thank you to my mom Joan Piras Tribble for calling to wake us up when you saw smoke from Chico. No joke, you saved our lives. 

-I am thankful that our power went out AFTER I opened the garage door.

-I am thankful that Donna stayed home sick and I was working from home that day otherwise we would have been in Chico and our cats would have been lost.

-I am thankful that we made it to Durham despite driving through flames on both sides of the road with a nearly empty gas tank.

-I am thankful I knew some of the back roads in Paradise and was able to get to safety sooner.

-I am thankful I procrastinated on some chores before our house burnt down and thankful we hadn’t made the costly home repairs we had planned just yet.

-I am thankful that we still have jobs that gave us paid time off for the emergency.

-I am thankful that we have fire insurance.

-I am thankful for the gofundme my cousin Ryan Butterworth made for us and the incredible support we are getting even from people I have not talked to in years.

-I am thankful for an extremely supportive family that is making sure we are well taken care of while we figure out what the hell we are supposed to do next.

-I am thankful for the LITERALLY 20+ people who have offered us a place to stay and the 50+ that have asked how they can help.

-I am thankful for the firefighters, policemen and countless other professionals who have done their best to keep people safe.  People who were staying in harm’s way to direct traffic or rescue people or fight fires. It takes a certain sort of person to not run in the face of danger and I can say that knowing full well the danger they were in.

-I am thankful for the food discounts and discounts on basic items I no longer have from a community that understands the major need that we have right now.

-I am thankful for all the free shelter and donations that are being shared selflessly even though I might not have needed it myself.

-I am thankful to have my wife Donna Deatrick and my rascal cats still with me to get through this next challenging chapter of our lives.

I have never seen such a unified community working together for the common good like I have this week and politics and religions and races and all differences are being set aside in a tragic and heartbreaking situation for all of those involved.

Thank you everyone for everything.  Please remember how much it means and how thankful we are for feeling so fortunate despite losing so much.

Once we land on our feet I will do my best to drag everyone else up out of the embers of this catastrophe so we can return to some sort of normalcy in our lives.

John referred to his message as  “a coping mechanism, staying positive, finding the positive in a negative situation, the silver lining.” He found the exercise to be therapeutic. Putting all he’d just experienced into its proper perspective helped him feel better, at least for that night.

Valiant Reactions To The Disaster

As we know from the news reports, the town of Paradise was destroyed, incinerated into nothingness, as was much of the surrounding area. United Healthcare Group employs both John and Donna, and another 400 living in the surrounding Chico area.

An estimated 30% of their Chico employees had suffered a similar fate as the Deatricks. United Health has been extraordinarily supportive and classy throughout the ordeal. Not only did they continue their affected employee’s compensation, giving them enough time to deal with their situation, but they also set up a donation room so the community of concerned colleagues could offer support.

Chico, a town of 100,000, was not prepared for the onslaught of an estimated 29,000 temporary residents. While the Deatrick’s were fortunate to find an apartment for temporary housing, many others remained in shelters, churches, parking lots, tent cities and the like. The evacuees received an incredible amount of support from the townspeople and national humanitarian efforts as well. Each day, events where free shoes, clothing, water, food, hugs, and any other support imaginable was made available.

The Financial Challenges

Some of the things we rarely think of include what comes next for the victims. How can they possible recover? Frankly, many of them don’t. Those who owned the now desolate, charred land still had mortgages and real estate taxes to pay on their properties. Fortunately, the Deatrick’s insurance company was helpful throughout the process, although it took a frustrating month before receiving the first settlement check.

Because they were among the lucky few with the resources, they next sought to pay off their mortgage. Sounds easy, huh? Not so. Each day, there was one excuse after another from the bank as the interest continued to compound. It took almost three months and $3,000 of additional interest before the bank finally ended the insanity and accepted their payoff request!

As far as national emergency resources, they didn’t know what to expect from FEMA. This was one of their most pleasant surprises. Representatives from FEMA arrived almost overnight and took over a building formerly occupied by Sears. By John’s report, they performed with exceptional sensitivity and skill. They brought into their location everybody who could help – the county assessor, the DMV, the Department of Environmental Safety, etc. “There were fifteen to twenty government agencies in that building, kind of a one-stop shop.”

One by one, they rebuilt their history, replacing their birth certificates, marriage license and social security cards. They had their house re-assessed to lower their taxes, applied for assistance to address the loss of their belongings, and they applied for a subsidized disaster-assistance loan from the SBA. They even received a $250 gift card from a charity and were given environmental safety gear for their eventual return to Paradise.

All in all, FEMA was efficient and prepared for everything! Kudos to a government agency that works brilliantly when the citizens needed it most desperately.

Returning Home

About a month after the fire, just before Christmas, John and Donna were finally able to go back to Paradise to glimpse their former lives. “The drive was very emotional, seeing all the chimneys,” said John. “Almost every house that was burnt down was just…all that was left was a chimney.” 

When they arrived at what was once their home, they expected to be overwrought with emotion, but that’s not what happened. A former neighbor had shown them a photo a few weeks earlier and they knew what to expect. They had already begun to move through the grieving and were beginning to accept the fact that everything was gone.


Like most victims of the disaster, the Deatrick’s are not re-building in Paradise, having made the decision to relocate closer to Chico. In fact, as of April 2019, Paradise has issued only one residential permit for re-building.

Assessing Culpability

Recurring concerns and questions relate primarily to understanding the causes of the fire and preventing such disasters in the future. Why have these California fires become so frequent and so devastating?

Investigators are just starting to present their theories, if not certain answers and there is plenty of finger-pointing. For one, it is said that due to environmental regulations, California has failed to clear the forest underbrush, which fueled the fire. John feels there is a misconception here. “From what I’ve been told, California only has jurisdiction over approximately 2% of the forests within the state. The majority of the land that burned is owned by D.C., so this was the Federal government’s responsibility, not California’s.”

Another prominent perpetrator in the news has been the public utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric. They recently declared bankruptcy due to the serious allegations of negligence. Are the residents bitter?

“I like to be a positive person,” says John. “It was a negligence thing, not an intentional act. I can guarantee you PG&E did not want the town of Paradise to burn down. It was not malicious, and to me, I judge people based on intent. There’s a lot of really good people working at PG&E who have been working their butts off the last few months trying to make this town come back to life.”

The Lasting Message

There is a biblical quote – 1 Corinthians 3:13 – that has application here. While there are several versions, here’s one:

“Each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.”

John and Donna Deatrick have come through the fire and with their remarkable attitude and outlook to rely on, it appears they are well on their way to recovery. It is just this type of extraordinary positivity and resilience that we celebrate and promote here at Throomers.

We wish the same recovery and prosperous future for all the victims who have been tested by the Paradise fires, the other recent California fires, and all victims of such natural calamities in America and around the world.