The mountainous ridge of Paradise, California, is the kind of place you go to get away from it all – not experience a living hell.
But from the safety of his mother’s Mesa home, Scot Rayl is still trying to come to grips with the hell he experienced last week in Paradise as fire obliterated the community.
Rayl’s sister, Chandler resident Jennifer Simas, knew she had to do something to help the devastated community the moment her mother broke the awful news about the town where her brother lived, as well as other assorted family members.
To help ease that suffering, Simas is organizing an East Valley donation drive with the help of a Gilbert nonprofit.
“My mom called me and she said, ‘Paradise is on fire. I want to stay close to the phone,’” Simas said. “Every year they evacuate everybody because of fire (danger). This time, it couldn’t be saved.”
At the time, Scot, a Paradise resident, didn’t know if he was going to live or become one of the dozens killed in the worst wildfire in California history. Then again, nobody in the Northern California community of nearly 27,000 people thought Nov. 8, 2018, would be the day the town was virtually wiped off the map.
The top story in the “Paradise Post” that morning focused on a still-undecided race for the Paradise town council. Just a few hours after that issue went to press, however, there would be no town for the council to oversee.
And in just a few hours, Rayl would be experiencing a real-life version of the worst dream ever.
The fire moved up the ridge at one acre per second, giving residents almost no time to evacuate. Rayl jumped into his van, leaving his burning house behind to begin the race of his life down the mountain to Chico, the nearest safety zone about 10 miles away.
He navigated a road that was littered with abandoned cars as flames rose on both sides. The heat was so intense it caused metal from some vehicles to melt onto the asphalt.
He sped past propane tanks that exploded one by one as the wind-aided flames torched homes, buildings and anything else in its path.
Rayl heard people screaming and crying. He watched them running to shopping center parking lots, which provided safety from flames that encircled them until evacuation buses were able to scoop them out of danger.
Despite the obstacles, Rayl luckily made it to Chico. He bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Arizona for a nearly day-long trip away from hell. At that moment, the safest place was the desert – in his mother’s arms.
Simas lived in Paradise for a bit but spent more time residing in Chico around the turn of the millennium. But her mother, Cheryl Scamihorn, lived in Paradise about 15 years. Plus, extended uncles, cousins and nephews have called “the Ridge” home for the better part of two decades since Simas’ grandfather built a home there in the mid-1990s.
“I made a lot of friends in that community,” said Simas, a self-employed foreign exchange trader. “We know a lot of families that are suffering right now.”
In the first days after the fire, Simas collected donated toiletries in her garage before coming up with the idea of contacting the brother of a friend who runs Midwest Food Bank in Gilbert.
Operations Director Q Nielsen said the nonprofit is donating a 53-foot truck and a driver to take weekly loads of supplies to help victims who are staying in housing set up by the Red Cross or simply living in their cars in shopping center parking lots.
“We have a semi-tractor and a trailer, we have the facility, we have the volunteer drivers,” Nielsen said. “We just need the product to get to these victims.”
Two Phoenix TV stations helped raise awareness for the drive last week. Simas said day-to-day necessities are needed most – such as toothbrushes, shampoo, diapers, baby bottles and wipes, shoes, packaged and canned foods, water bottles and feminine hygiene products.
“We’re doing everything we can to fill that trailer,” Simas said. “It’ll be weekly for next few weeks, and then we’ll see what they need long-term.”
Nielsen said it will cost the nonprofit about $3,200 for each round trip to Chico, where donations are going for the mini-shelters that have been set up in shopping center parking lots.
That cost makes cash donations helpful as well. Nielsen said people who donate money can specify they want it to go to the Paradise relief effort.
The food bank has made donating even easier than ever with a phone app. The Midwest Food Bank app is available on all platforms for donations and to find videos, locations and more. Donations can also be made in person at the Food Bank at 725 E. Baseline Road or online at arizona.midwestfoodbank.org.
Midwest is relatively new to the Valley, but it’s used to helping out in disaster situations across the country.
“When you wake up in the morning, and you imagine getting a toothbrush, that’s something so simple, but these people have nothing,” Nielsen said.
Rayl said he’s already thankful for the help Paradise is receiving nearly 900 miles away.
“I need to fix my town,” an emotionally exhausted Rayl said on TV. “We need to bring it back to what it was.”