'It was like Armageddon:' Happy Camp families recount escape from Slater Fire
As an unusually strong summer wind whipped the Slater Fire into a frenzy Tuesday afternoon, Rod Allec of Happy Camp remembers stepping into his dining room and closing the sliding glass door behind him.
“It was totally calm and completely quiet and it felt safe. I just wanted stay there,” he said.
But when he turned around and opened the door, “it was like Armageddon,” said Rod, 53. “You could hear this low roar from the fire. The wind was howling and stuff was flying through the air.”
Minutes later, Rod was told he had to leave. He packed up his family – including his son, his son’s girlfriend, their 4 month-old baby and his own two adopted children, ages 6 and 9, and drove through flames to escape his Indian Meadows property.
Rod’s home was one of 150 destroyed by the Slater Fire on Sept. 8. His wife, MaraLei and his 23 year-old daughter, BaiLei, were in Yreka that morning at a doctor’s appointment and received the CodeRed alert about an evacuation warning.
They raced home as quickly as they could to help Rod evacuate, BaiLei envisioning every room in their house and planning what she would grab. But the house burned down before they made it.
All eight members of the Allec family are now staying at the Hi-Lo Motel in Weed, where the American Red Cross assisted them in finding temporary housing.
The morning of Sept. 8 started out like any other for Debra Johnson of Happy Camp. The 65 year-old, who is raising five grandchildren, got up, made breakfast and got the four younger kids off to school. The oldest started with his distance learning routine, and Debra sat down to peruse Facebook.
That’s where Debra saw alerts about the Slater Fire, which had started overnight and was beginning to threaten Happy Camp, where she’s lived for eight years.
To prepare for possible evacuation, Debra began packing a few things. When it was time to collect her grandchildren from Happy Camp Elementary School, something prompted her bring her grandson and two dogs along.
By the time Debra made it to the school, loaded the kids in the car and headed back home, the road was blocked and no one was allowed back in. The fire was approaching fast in a thick cloud of blue smoke.
With no other option, Debra turned around and drove to her daughter’s home in Orleans. She and the kids, ages 9, 11, 12, 13 and 14, are now staying with Lucy Avila.
“We’re still in shock,” said Lucy, who was surprised when her family showed up on her doorstep Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t know about the fire because power was out in Orleans that day. “It’s just unbelievable that something like this could happen. It’s like something from a movie.”
Neither the Allecs nor Johnson have been allowed back to Happy Camp to see what’s left.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said MaraLei, who was born and raised in Happy Camp and also has a brother and an aunt who lost their homes. “I feel like I need to see it with my own two eyes before I’ll really believe it.”
Rod becomes emotional talking about all they’ve lost and said it’s a difficult thing to process. “We see the same smoke coming over the hill every year and nothing ever happens,” he said.
The Allecs have to cross a bridge to get to their property, which is a few miles up the creek, MaraLei explained. One of her cousins who works for Karuk Tribal security went to take a look at their home and he said even the bridge is gone.
MaraLei said they’re taking things one step at a time. Although they haven’t discussed it, they’ll most likely rebuild in Happy Camp, since all their jobs are with the Karuk Tribe.
Debra Johnson hopes to use any money she collects from the “Debra Johnson and grandkids Personal Emergency Fundraiser" to purchase a travel trailer where she and her grandchildren can live until they rebuild on their Indian Meadows property.
Although the Johnsons have enough clothing – many people have come together to provide clothes for Debra and the kids – the family needs everything else, from personal items to household goods.
The Johnsons and the Allecs face the same conundrum as others who have been displaced by natural disasters – although they appreciate and need donations, they have no place to store items like kitchenware, furniture and other things they’ll eventually need to get back on their feet.
MaraLei said proceeds from the Happy Camp Emergency Fundraiser at will be helpful for her family.
“We got lucky,” MaraLei said of their current housing situation. “There are so many of us.”