December 11, 2019

‘He told me he loved me, and then the phone went dead’

On November 8, 2018, the devastating Camp Fire struck the town of Paradise, California, United States. Among the Paradise residents were Jack and Neoma Wisdom. The Wisdoms are long-time Seventh-day Adventists and Pathfinder leaders who, through the years, have volunteered in mission projects organized by Maranatha Volunteers International. Here they share their ordeal to survive the Camp Fire and how the catastrophe became strangely linked to one of their volunteer projects in Africa.—Editors

Jack: In 2017, we took part in a Maranatha Volunteers International mission trip to Kenya. We went to build a boys’ dormitory at Upper Hills Adventist School in Isiolo. We were there to construct a new dorm for the students, but what I remember most were the children outside the campus. Children on the other side of the fence were begging for water, and we could not quench their thirst. We saw the large containers the women and girls had to carry for miles. 

Neoma: When we saw this, Jack and I decided we wanted to donate for a well. On our return to the United States, we created a fundraiser a raised a few hundred dollars. It was a great start, but more money was needed. Little we knew how things would change very soon. 

On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire struck down Paradise. The fire soon burned down our church, our home, our friends’ homes and businesses, and the majority of Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, where my husband worked. It claimed more than 86 lives that day.

That morning, Jack had gone to work early. He saw the fire in the canyon and warned the Operating Room Team at the hospital. Then he returned home to warn me. After he left for work again, I was soon told by a neighbor that he had received a call to evacuate immediately. When I walked back to our home, I was praying out loud. “Lord, what do I need to get?” Immediately I heard a voice next to me saying, “Get out. Get out now!”

Grabbing our two dogs, I left our home and our town. Dark, smoky clouds filled the sky; ashes were falling like snow, and the bright light of a raging fire burned behind me as I headed to my mother’s house in the town below the ridge where Paradise is.

Jack: No sooner had our team started the first surgical case of the day, but the surgery doors flew open, and our charge nurse said the fire was in the parking lot and we needed to finish the case as quickly as we could and get out! By the grace of God, most of the staff had evacuated the hospital of all patients and staff in 45 minutes using their vehicles. I first called my wife to make sure she was out of danger. She told me she was on her way out of town and told me to avoid Pearson Road because of how dangerous it was.

It took me almost half an hour to get out of the hospital parking lot onto the crowded road. I turned right but was met by darkness and then flames. I saw a man walking through the fire with his dog and soon had both inside my car. Forced to turn around the other direction, I found myself on Pearson Road — the very road my wife had told me not to go down.

It was a terrifying scene. Cars were on fire. The forest on both sides of the road were burning. Houses were infernos. Propane tanks were exploding. Trees were bursting in the heat from their sap boiling.

Neoma: Jack called me during this time. I could hear the explosions through the phone. He told me to please pray for him, pray the trees wouldn’t fall on them. He said God was with him. He told me he loved me and I responded I loved him too, and then the phone went dead. I started praying. I was so scared for my husband. I knew God was with him — whether I would see him here on this earth or on resurrection morning — but I really wanted to see him! I dropped to my knees and prayed. I prayed for all the people trying to escape the fire.

Jack: I was in the worst situation I had ever been in. All around the car was flames. I had to lean into the middle of the car to try to avoid the worst of the heat, radiating through the doors and windows. The car was literally melting on the outside.

I told the man that I had picked up off the road, “I’m sorry I picked you up. I may have killed you. But don’t worry, I serve a God who raises people from the dead, so this is nothing for Him!” The man smiled.

At that point, I heard a new noise over the inferno. It sounded like a tank. A bulldozer roared by me, flipping burning cars off the road. I followed him and ended up behind a fire truck that was also stuck on Pearson Road. Later, I would hear on the news that the operator of the bulldozer had not wanted to go into the fire, but he kept seeing the red tail lights of cars and knew people needed help. I also learned there were only two bulldozers in Paradise that day, and God had sent one our way.

I kept following the fire truck, and eventually it led our cars into a small field. The bulldozer operator plowed a circle around us to keep the fire away. Eventually, I followed the bulldozer out once more. It led me back to the hospital I had left earlier. It had only been two hours since I raced out of work, but it felt like a lifetime. I had also traveled just 3 miles (less than 5 kilometers) during that time.

Neoma: I was safe at my mother’s home in Chico. By then, my mom was calling every person, every church, every conference she knew, to ask them to pray for Paradise, and she knows a lot of people! I was still on my knees, praying and reading God’s promises in the Bible.

“Ask and it shall be given unto you.”

That day, I claimed that promise. Then I heard the same voice I had heard before, back at my house in Paradise, telling me this time, “He’s OK.”

It had been four hours since I last talked to Jack, but I felt a calm peace roll over me. Less than a minute passed, and my cell phone rings. It was an unknown number. I picked up, but no one answered. So, I called back, thinking maybe it’s the police with news from my husband, but instead I hear Jack’s voice! Thank you, Lord!

Jack: I was finally reunited with Neoma after nine hours. The aftermath is this: yes, we lost our home, our church, our jobs. Our neighbors and friends are now scattered around the globe. But God was with us through the fire, just like He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego so long ago.

Neoma: We were grateful for our lives. And then we were given another miracle. While so many people were struggling with their insurance companies, ours quickly sent us a check.

Jack: When we got the check, the first thing that came to our minds was not our home or our things. It was the well in Kenya, the one we had wanted to fund months ago. So, we gave Maranatha a check for a water well with the claim of Isaiah 65:24, which reads, “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” 

Neoma: We continue to give God thanks. We thank Him for getting us through the fire. We thank Him for getting our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren out safely. We thank Him for people opening their homes and hearts, and we thank the Lord for the insurance company that kept their word. We thank all of those who prayed for Paradise.

Jack: We are thankful for a Lord who promises to be with us through all the many types of fires in our lives. We know God doesn’t cause these disasters, but He does allow them to happen. Sometimes we don’t know why, but we think He has a plan. A plan to use this disaster to help others. God used this disaster and turned it into good. He used it to provide a well in Kenya. Before they called, He answered.