Retired East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Capt. John Foster recalled being mildly annoyed when he heard a neighbor knocking on his door early in the morning of Nov. 8.
But when he opened the door it was immediately clear that something was very wrong.
John and his wife, Patty, longtime Brentwood residents, had been visiting family before returning to their new home in Paradise. The night before the fire started was unremarkable, one like any other. The couple grabbed a quick dinner. John took the garbage can to the end of the driveway, and he and Patty called it a night. Within hours, the garbage can was the only thing left standing after the Camp Fire roared through their neighborhood leaving widespread devastation in its wake and sending John and Patty scrambling for their lives along with a host of their neighbors.
“I’m always an early riser. I got up and poured my coffee like I normally do every morning,” John said, describing the first morning of the fire. “I have a neighbor that comes over four or five times a day. He barely knocks on my door. If I’d have been asleep I wouldn’t have heard him. I go to the door and he goes, ‘Hey, come here and look at this.’ I don’t even have shoes on. I follow him out and we got to the end of the carport and I looked up and at that point I looked at him and said, ‘Pack and leave now,’ because it was obvious.”
Overhead, John and his neighbor saw a mushroom cloud of swirling black smoke accompanied by the sounds of exploding transformers and propane tanks and the incessant honking of stuck car horns triggered by burning cars, sounds that John’s 31-year career in the fire service had trained him to recognize. John knew it was time to get moving.
“At that point, Patty is going through the house getting stuff out of the safe, getting papers – all that stuff,” John said. “I’m throwing combustibles away from my house thinking I’m going to stay. I even said on my video, ‘I’m staying, Patty’s going,’ which my daughter set me straight on a few minutes later on the phone. And she was right. Thank God I did what she asked me to do.”
With spot fires beginning to burn in the neighborhood, the Fosters prepared to head south to Chico, a trip that would take them from one end of Paradise to the other. John turned on garden hoses knowing they wouldn’t have any impact on the monster bearing down on them. Leaving in two cars, John scooped up an elderly neighbor who was alone and did not drive. The neighbor then told John she left her CPAP machine and purse behind.
“I did a big no-no and I went back in,” he said. “By that time her place was half involved with fire. Fortunately, when I opened her door right across the room you could see her stuff on the couch. I got it and got out.”
As John and Patty were pulling out of the neighborhood that had just begun to feel like home, they knew it was unlikely they would ever see their house again. At that moment, though, that was the least of their problems. The Fosters ran into a traffic jam before they made it to Skyway, their route to safety. As other neighbors fell in behind the Fosters, they looked to John for a plan. His first objective was to keep everyone calm. Then he began scouting around for safety zones that could protect evacuees if the fire started to overrun them. When traffic bogged down, John kicked in doors to homes knowing that a house could provide sufficient shelter in an emergency.
“You can ride fire out inside of a house for a short period time, until at least the main fire passes and then you come out,” John explained. “You can do the same thing in a car. It’s a safety zone. It will burn, but hopefully the main fire passes over. Yeah, it’s hot and it’s smoky, but it’s tolerable.”
Under John’s direction and in seriously deteriorating conditions, the caravan that had grown to 30 or 40 cars, maybe more, pulled into the large parking lot of a convalescent home. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best option at hand. The civilians were joined by police officers from several agencies and even a Cal Fire engine crew who saw the wisdom in John’s survival plan. The air was thick with smoke and full of red hot embers and fire burned around the perimeter, but everyone survived. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for everyone who was trapped on Skyway that morning. As the roadway reopened, John led the long line of cars as they snaked their way through the still-burning town of Paradise to safety in Chico and a rendezvous with neighbors and loved ones.
John and Patty’s home did burn to the ground that morning along with most of Paradise. Purchased with their life savings, it had yet to be insured. John explained that obtaining fire insurance in an area prone to wildfire is complicated and time consuming and they had yet to complete the process. The Fosters are temporarily living in Brentwood but plan to live in a travel trailer near Paradise when it is safe to do so.
“It’s a tragedy for all the people who lost everything in Paradise, but it hits especially close to home when it happens to one of our own,” said ECCFPD Battalion Chief Ross Macumber. “Fortunately, Capt. Foster and his wife are safe, and he also aided other people in the area while he evacuated, getting them to safety. Capt. Foster served this area for over 30 years and stepped up and helped all while the fire was bearing down on him. We are proud of his actions and will support him in any way we can. He is still one of ours, even into retirement.”
It is impossible to say how the outcome might have changed for the people who followed the Fosters that morning, though John is quick to disavow any sentiment that he is a hero.
“We’re not used to taking,” said John, and Patty agreed. “We always gave. Look, now we’ve got stuff, and we didn’t ask for any of it. It’s literally humbling, the people that have stepped up. Even people I haven’t talked to in 20 years – they’ve called, they’ve sent message. It’s overwhelming. It’s a touching thing.”
To contribute to a GoFundMe account for the Fosters, visit: https://bit.ly/2K1MubJ.