They’ve seen fire. Even jumped on it in their younger days.
But two California men who “rookied” at the Missoula smokejumper base 15 years apart never experienced anything like the flames that laid low their hometown of Paradise on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills earlier this month.
Few in this world have.
Joel Wilkinson (Missoula 1980) and Brian Kopka (Missoula ’95) were part of the mass exodus from Paradise on Nov. 8 as the incredibly fast-moving flames roared in across the Feather River Canyon.
They drove through flames and survived massive traffic gridlock to make it out alive with their families.
“That fire was just insanely aggressive, I’ll put it that way,” Wilkinson told the Missoulian this week. “You couldn’t believe … In all my years of firefighting experience, I had never seen a fire like that.”
“Once we started seeing embers dropping in the front yard, that’s when we really started hustling,” said Kopka.
The Camp fire claimed 88 lives in Paradise, a city of 27,000, and in the nearby towns of Concow and Magalia.
The active search for human remains ended this week after volunteers and emergency workers combed through nearly 14,000 homes and another 5,000 structures. Nearly 200 people remain unaccounted for.
By Sunday, when the fire was fully controlled, more than 150,000 acres had been burned. It was the deadliest and most damaging wildland fire in California history.
Wilkinson and Kopka survived, but in the course of a few hours that Thursday morning they lost their homes and much more.
“It’s just so hard to have your entire life wiped away from you,” Wilkinson said, his voice cracking. “Literally, my life has completely changed in the last three weeks. I don’t have a home, I don’t have a possession to my name.”
Chuck Sheley has kept track of “his” smokejumpers. The longtime managing editor of the National Smokejumper Association’s quarterly Smokejumper Magazine, Sheley lives in nearby Chico and maintains a database of former and current jumpers. Fred Cooper, an ex-jumper who lives in Missoula, saw a Day 19 email update Sheley posted this week that told Wilkinson’s story and sent it to the Missoulian. Sheley also talked to Kopka and provided the newspaper with contacts for both former Missoula jumpers.
“Brian’s wife had a lot of their stuff pre-packed from prior evacuations,” Sheley said. “He was on the west side of the Skyway, the major escape route getting out of there, and the fire didn’t get to him as quick. Joel was on the east side and he barely made it.”
After Wilkinson's smokejumping years in Missoula and West Yellowstone from 1980 to 1986, he became a glass artist, woodcarver and an arborist who, at age 62 , still climbs trees every day for a living.
He said winds were blowing 60- to 70-mph the morning of Nov. 8 and the fire covered the 20 miles from its origin point to Paradise in just a couple of hours. After hurriedly throwing as much as they could in their 21-foot travel trailer, Wilkinson and his wife Cheryl set out in different vehicles. They quickly got separated. Cheryl reached Chico hours before he did.
“I was stuck on a small two-lane road going across to another road that went south,” he said. “I got probably a quarter of mile before I was impacted by traffic. Then the fire engulfed the entire road on both sides and it got worse and worse as we got farther down the road. It was insane.”
In the smoky chaos, others were forsaking their cars and trying to flee on foot.
“I was screaming, ‘No, get back in your car! That’s the safest place to be!’” he said.
The abandoned cars and trucks clogged up the road. Wilkinson got stuck between two burning vehicles. When he finally wedged his truck and trailer between them, the trailer caught fire. Wilkinson jumped out and quelled the flames, or so he thought.
“I got up another quarter mile or so and a guy came out of the truck behind me and banged on the window,” Wilkinson recalled. “He said, ‘Dude, your trailer’s on fire.’ "
He found a place to pull over and, after a struggle as propane tanks from homes exploded around him, got the trailer unhitched.
“The biggest bummer was we’d used that to shove most of the stuff out of the house into,” Wilkinson said. “My wife’s a devoted quilter and we had probably 20 or 30 quilts in the back of the trailer that she had spent months and months on."
At least by then, he’d cleared the worst of the flames. But the traffic snarls only increased.
“Literally from that point on, it took another four hours to get out of Paradise. Every single road you went down had been overrun by fire. It was a fricking nightmare to get out of there,” Wilkinson said.
Kopka, 49, is in the tree service business as well. He owns Sierra Tree Care in Paradise and, like Wilkinson, he cites his smokejumper experience in the mountains of the Northwest as a catalyst for his chosen livelihood.
He spent three years in Missoula before transferring to Grangeville, Idaho, and Kopka became adept at tree climbing.
When the fire came, Kopka already had his RV trailer half packed. He and a brother-in-law from Chicago were getting ready for a cross-country trip to Georgia to help with cleanup from Hurricane Michael.
As the embers started falling, Kopka, his wife Anna, their 16-year-old son Owen and his brother-in-law Jimmy started throwing photographs, records and a few other essentials into her Honda CRV. Kopka hooked the RV up to his Dodge dually truck. Anna drove the Honda towing three small dirt bikes on a trailer Brian bought in Missoula all those years ago. Their first destination was their tree service shop on the northwest side of town to rendezvous with Kopka’s parents.
The elder Kopkas were fleeing Magalia, a small town just north of Paradise, in a couple of vehicles. They never showed up at the shop.
The Skyway road to Chico was “complete gridlock,” said Kopka, who later learned his parents had been forced to turn around and take a roundabout way to safety through the mountains to the north.
All eventually made it out, but their grim nightmare was realized the next day. Both homes were gone, as was Kopka's shop. With the latter went two brush chippers, chip trucks, dump trailers, a portable man lift, and all the chainsaws and rigging equipment for the tree business. The saving grace: the Kenworth semi “grapple truck” that Kopka bought recently was being worked on in Oroville.
“That’s my big moneymaker piece of equipment,” said Kopka, whose family has a place to stay at a son-in-law’s home in Chico.
The Wilkinsons also stayed with relatives in Chico for a couple of weeks, then moved last weekend into a rented motor home in Live Oak, 40 miles to the south. They won’t rebuild in Paradise, said Wilkinson, who grew up in Chico. Even before the fire they were thinking about moving to Oregon, where their daughter Chloe is going to college in the Portland area.
Kopka was asked where he and his family will be a year from now.
“I think we’ll still be here,” he said.
Son Owen has a year and a half to go in high school, and wants to graduate from Paradise High, even if the building itself isn’t standing.
“I hope to be helping clean up Paradise, working with the grapple truck around here,” Kopka said. "We’ll be subs for hauling and moving brush and debris. There’s going t be a lot of work in Paradise.”
Kopka has been contacted by the Missoula smokejumpers, who sent a “nice check.” Some of his former colleagues offered to come to Paradise to help, but Kopka told them there's not much they can do.
“That’s what I miss about (smoke jumping), that camaraderie with those guys,” Kopka said. “They’re probably the best friends I’ll ever have.”
Sheley helped both Wilkinson and Kopka get into the smokejumpers program. He's seen to it that both men received checks from the National Smokejumpers Association’s Good Samaritan Fund. The fund was established 10 years ago, and has provided more than $160,000 to aid smokejumpers and their families in times of need.
At Sheley’s suggestion, Wilkinson met with him at a McDonalds in Chico last weekend.
“Joel was just as sturdy as they come in telling his story until I slipped the (Good Samaritan Fund) check across the table,” Sheley said. “Then all the pent-up stress and emotion came out and you could see his eyes well up.”
“I’ve never accepted handouts and now I’m having to do that. I’m having to reach out to people for help,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve had so many people call and express their good wishes and everything else, and that’s fantastic. But I literally go to sleep at night and I just can’t shut it off.
"I still see every moment when I was trying to get out of Paradise. I’m just completely grateful to be alive.”