≡ Menu

Angel Unaware: The Woman Who Drove Her School Bus Through the Tunnel of Fire

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13 2

When you’re like me and have to buy all things new that a month ago were old, you get your fill of the brand spanking new fast. When you’re like me and the only thing old in your apartment is you, you yearn for the old and worn things; things that fit your life like comfortable old shoes. When you’re like me you yearn for things that have a touch of grey, a wisp of Wabi-sabi. When you’re like me and you are replacing your life on a budget, you go to tag sales; a lot of tag sales.

She was haggling over a cast-iron frying pan and I was there to haggle over a chair. It was inside a cold Quonset hut out by the railroad tracks at about 8:00 on a Sunday morning. She was almost old and certainly haggard with long lank strands of white and grey hair around a too old for her eyes face. She was making jokes and laughing with the tag sale lady as she worked her down a buck at a time. She worked her down with that tone people have when every dollar is important to their cash flow. Then she heard me ask the quiet question we are all asking in Chico when we shop for everything to replace everything we’ve lost, “D0 you have a Camp Fire discount?”

She came over to me with her hand already holding her cell phone and asked the question Paradise refugees ask each other when they first meet, “What street were you when the fire came through?”

“Scottwood. Where were you?”

“Driving my school bus. We’d started at 6:30 and then after I picked up some kids we were called back to the bus yard near the school.”

“Did you go?”

“Couldn’t get there. The fire was already there. I just told the kids to stay in their seats and I got to the K-Mart parking lot.”

“I thought that burned to the ground. The whole shopping center.”

“No. No. It was okay when I was there with the kids. They had other cars there too and a fire truck hooked up to a pump.”

She flips her fingers back and forth on the screen of her phone looking for the pictures we all took of what we were up to on that day. I think a lot of folks took pictures of the fire surrounding them thinking that at least something, maybe their phone, might survive that recorded their final agony. Some might have. We don’t know yet.

“Here. See that? That’s the fireman who trained his hose on my bus. Kept us cool inside all that heat. Took nearly four hours to get us out. Kept it up all that time until we could move then went along with us with the fire truck.”

“Four hours?”

“More like four and a half really. Little girl in my bus couldn’t hold it. I told her it was okay and she could just pee in the back of the bus. She was embarrassed. I told her, ‘It’s alright honey. Nobody’s gonna see.”

More images of the school bus being wet down in the parking lot flicker by with a flick of her fingers. Then images of the tunnel of fire on Clark or Pentz with a fire truck in front and the fireman still hosing down the bus behind him in this fire tunnel caravan.

“What did you lose,” I ask, knowing the answer.

“Oh, house and garage. Everything.

“I even lost my car. Here’s a picture a friend sent me of my car parked in the bus yard.”

She shows me a grim, but far too common, image of a row of gutted and burned out cars. Her’s is in the middle. It’s some sort of small hard-used banger common among the Paradise people who lived on a “fixed income.” It’s just a gray burned metal shell like those to the right and the left of it. It’s beyond minor body work. She’ll have to get a new very used car. She’ll have a hard time affording one.

“It is what it is,” she says. (We all say that a lot these days.) “But it could have been worse. Much worse. Look there.”

She blows up the photo and scrolls to the right of the burned cars. There are two very large metal tanks about 15 yards away from the ranks of incinerated automobiles. They’ve got “3,000” stenciled on them.

“Those are full of diesel for our buses. And in front, underground, are some of the bus yard’s gasoline tanks. The fire took the cars but left the tanks. Could have been worse.”

It’s hard for me to imagine anything about the Camp Fire that could have been worse but I see her point.

The tag sale lady behind her is making that turning away move people make when they need to get on selling the old junk they don’t need to someone who does. The bus driver shrugs and puts her phone away.

“Yep, could have been worse, but we got the kids out.”



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julie December 7, 2018, 1:08 PM

    May God bless her a thousand-fold for each one of those kids she drove safely out. And the firemen, too, for all that they did.

  • JiminAlaska December 7, 2018, 1:15 PM

    “Yep, could have been worse, but we got the kids out.”


  • John Venlet December 7, 2018, 1:15 PM

    Went to check on your list of stories to tell, after reading this, and I see you’ve already crossed number 5 off the list. I should’ve known you’d be the sort of person who’d be on top of something like that. I’ll be looking forward to the remaining 26, though I’d wager there may well be some additions. Hope you’re feeling better each day, Gerard.

  • Sam L. December 7, 2018, 1:42 PM

    She did what she had to do, and with the help of the fire truck and those who manned it, saved the children. Calmness under/surrounded-by fire.

  • Nobody Atall December 7, 2018, 1:58 PM

    Thank you. I just added this woman to my prayer book.

  • azlibertarian December 7, 2018, 2:03 PM

    Oh my God, Gerard. I’ve come here nearly every day since your loss, and I almost always finish reading with tears in my eyes. At some point, you think “Well, the tears are going to end one day. The stories are going to be all told in one way or another, and the healing will have begun. We’ll begin to move on. ”

    I’m not there yet. The incredible stories you tell of the experience of the most common of your Paradise neighbors are still getting to me. God bless you all.

  • pbird December 7, 2018, 2:15 PM

    I hope she got her skillet.

  • Kathy Leicester December 7, 2018, 2:37 PM

    God bless every single person struggling to get their lives back together after the fire.
    You know what I was thinking as I read about the fire hose and the bus driver? I thought “well, of course that’s what they did, they took care of business because they are Americans. That’s what Americans do when the crisis comes–they do what needs to be done.”

    I don’t know what else to say except that I’m proud to be a part of the tribe, and I’m so proud of all the heroic actions taken on that day. All those kids are going to know just what to do when they get in a scrape: “Remember that bus driver?”

  • Joe December 7, 2018, 2:54 PM

    May you find everything you need, Gerard . Our best thoughts are with you.

  • Gordon Scott December 7, 2018, 3:12 PM

    Jaysus. No big deal, just kept her head and got a busful of kids through the disaster. She doesn’t expect a medal or even much thanks.

    Her original skillet would be one thing to have survived the fire, if you could find it in the ashes.

  • Vanderleun December 7, 2018, 3:28 PM

    If only she could. If only she could bear it.

  • Stephanie December 7, 2018, 4:51 PM

    Hope your new apartment is coming along nicely and you and the kitty are doing well? So surprising seeing this all go down on your blog and you escaping the fire calmly and making the right decisions along the way.

    Seeing the aftermath and thinking that could have been you,..must be…well, something to think about for sure. And yes, a time like this calls for many angels along the way. I’m sure they and you (and your mom) are up for the challenge of all people!

  • Foxfier December 7, 2018, 6:04 PM


    My folks were managing a ranch in the Methow when the big fires came through two or three years back; they scared me to death sending pictures of moving vehicles where the Okanogan fire was going through….they drained the diesel tank that went up in flames, saved the horses, saved the farm equipment.

    And knew exactly how it could go wrong. Grew up being told how it could go wrong.

    Thank God folks remember the stuff they’ve always said could go wrong.

  • John the River December 7, 2018, 8:50 PM

    The cast iron 12 inch square skillet was the only piece of cookware that survived my house fire. Still have it. Cooked lamb steak on it two nights ago.

    Cast iron is beyond price. Last winter I went five days without power. Natural gas but no power to run the furnace. Put five pieces of cast iron on the stove, lit the burners manually, set the flame height to keep the cast iron at 180 degrees. With a vaulted ceiling in the great room that opened out from the kitchen, the heat radiated into every connected room. The average temp was 60 degrees.

    Teflon? Phfft!

  • H December 8, 2018, 4:08 AM

    Regarding the somewhat less than casual heroics of the bus driver and fireman in that parking lot, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” I think those folks to whom it was first applied would agree with the misappropriation.

  • Jaynie December 8, 2018, 4:52 AM

    Angel Unaware, an amazing story. Here, lifting a prayer that the Lord continues His especial care for her and shower His grace and blessings upon her. Also that you get over your cold.

    I, too, hope she got her skillet.

  • Bill H. December 8, 2018, 7:16 AM

    Over the past few weeks reading your blog and how the town’s people have been able to deal with this disaster has given me more faith in humanity then I have had in years, for this I thank you. However, knowing that many of these people that you write about are from an older more resilient generation I do have concerns for the younger generation that will follow. I wonder how this next generation, a generation that needs safe spaces in their colleges to protect them from ideas and concepts that they disagree with would be able to handle this type of disaster. I seriously doubt that they could stand up to what the residents of Paradise did. As always my prayers are with you and the others who are continuing to deal with the aftermath of this horrific event. God Bless.

  • ghostsniper December 8, 2018, 8:17 AM

    @John, you should consider getting a ProCom gas, wall mounted, heater. I have one here in my office, installed it a few years ago myself. luv it Mine is small, I think 8k btu, about 16″ sq, protrudes from th wall about 4″. Bought it at Menards for about $125. Bought the hook ups too, about $35, paid the propane dood $50 to connect it to a new regulator and test for about $100. It’s mounted about 5′ above the floor and after the first couple days of getting the temperature right I never have to touch it again til spring when I turn the gas off. Effortless heat. It does propane and natural gas. And it’s got a cool blue flame behind tinted tempered glass. In the spring and fall I pull the front cover off and blow it out with the compressor and thats all the maintenance thats required. It has a piezo igniter like on the gas grill.

    Have a similar fireplace rig in the house. Large, 15k btu, no electric, propane. Frozen branches frequently take out the power wires back here in the sticks so back up heat is essential.

  • Bill Jones December 8, 2018, 9:01 AM

    Here’s a poem for these dark days: you certainly have heard the last two lines.
    by William Ernest Henley

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

  • iggy December 9, 2018, 4:51 PM

    Is it a lack of imagination that would compel parents to send their kids to school in the midst of a raging forest fire?

  • Mrs Whatsit December 9, 2018, 4:55 PM

    The bus driver and the fireman. They might as well be angels.