It might seem that Joe Avila doesn’t have a lot to be grateful for, after losing everything he owned — including 2,000 books from his library and all the music and instruments he used to teach music — when his hometown of Paradise burned to the ground in the Camp Fire on Nov. 8.
But Avila, 64, says he’s grateful for a lot: that he escaped with his life, that the American Red Cross and other organizations have provided him with a safe place to stay and taken good care of him in an evacuation shelter in the Oroville Nazarene Church, and that kind community members have given him a used guitar and replaced some of the books he was using to study theology.
He’s also heard from FEMA that they’ll give him some assistance, and he’s working with a Red Cross recovery team to find an apartment to move into.
Sitting at one of the dining tables outside the church shelter that had been his home since he escaped just in front of the fire, Avila talked about what happened that morning, after he looked outside his apartment door to see the building next door on fire. As he spoke, he took several breaks to strum his donated guitar and sing several classic songs, providing his own music therapy.
Avila said he had peeked outside because he’d seen a bright light through the window even though the power had gone out.
“I got up, and I opened the door, and the building across from me was on fire. It was only about 30 feet away from me,” he said.
Another building in his senior complex of about 100 apartments was also on fire, he said.
“I just knew it was very serious,” he said. “I just grabbed my walker. I didn’t have any shoes or socks on; I just had my pants and my shirt,” he said. “I looked up, the roof of my complex was on fire.”
He said that he didn’t even recognize the scene he saw, and later realized it was because a wooden fence that had screened part of his view of the complex had burned to the ground.
Trees were bursting into flames, embers flying and windows blowing out. He heard noises that sounded like bullets exploding, Avila said.
He hid behind a dumpster when the wind worsened the firestorm. “Some of the apartments started exploding behind me,” he said. “That’s when I lost my walker. It went flying across the parking lot.” When the rubber lid to the dumpster caught fire, “that’s when I had to start crawling across the parking lot to get my walker. If I had stayed there, I would have caught on fire, easily,” he said.
“I couldn’t see the street; it was so smoky,” he said. “I could see about 20 feet.”
Avila said he didn’t have time to be afraid.
“I just knew I had to get out of there,” he said. “I just knew I had to go, to keep moving.”
Avila said soon after he rescued his walker and made it to the street, his knees bloodied, a police car stopped, and officers told him to jump in. After picking up one other man escaping from the fire, they drove them to the evacuation shelter that had been set up at the Nazarene Church in Oroville.
Avila, who will be 65 in December, said he’d lived in Paradise for about 15 years. When
his home burned, “I lost all my musical instruments, my keyboards, my guitars, my amplifiers, foot pedals” as well as all the music he’s collected over the years. His library of about 2,000 books included books on theology, psychology, philosophy and quantum mechanics as well as music, he said.
Generous community members who visited the shelter brought him a used guitar. Others promised to order him some of the most important books he’d used to study theology, Avila said. The church provided him with any clothing or other things he needed, including a brand-new pair of sneakers.
He said he’s grateful to the Red Cross volunteers, including medical professionals, who have been “very attentive and compassionate.”
He said he feels the Red Cross volunteers he has interacted with genuinely care about him and his needs. “It doesn’t feel like it’s their job and they don’t mean what they’re saying,” he said.
“Whatever I needed,” he said he was told, “don’t hesitate to ask.”
As Avila finished sharing the story of his escape from Paradise, he abrupted jumped up.
“I have to take a break,” he said.
He rushed over to where a group of local college student musicians was setting up to entertain the shelter residents and sat down at their keyboard.
Soon he was playing and belting out “Amazing Grace.” He began smiling and visibly relaxed.
“I had to do that,” he said when he’d finished.
Playing music, both on his guitar and his keyboard, he said, is something he was used to doing several times a day, especially since his wife died eight years ago.
“It was a way of expressing my grief, my joy, my loneliness,” he said.
Story and photos by Barbara Woods, American Red Cross volunteer