It was America’s deadliest wildfire in 100 years. Paradise, California was hit in the morning of November 8, 2018, when the wildfires started tearing into the working-class town. The death toll rose to 88 and many lost everything they owned and loved, including family members.
One group of school children, from Ponderosa Elementary, were only a mile from their school when bus driver Kevin McKay opened the door of Bus 963 to about 22 kids, their eyes wide with fear. It took six hours to make it through the flames. Some called it the ‘bus ride from hell.’
Not Every Parent Was Available to Pick Up Their Kids
The wind-fueled fire advanced at astonishing speed on this Northern California community of 26,000. But some of the parents of those children on that bus were hard-working people who had to commute to distant communities or work low-paying jobs.
These were the kinds of jobs they couldn’t walk away from, even in emergencies. Not every parent was able to come fast enough to pick up their sons and daughters that day. Among the children were twin daughters of an immigrant couple who owned a local Thai restaurant and a 10-year-old daughter of a bartender.
Hell on Earth
Kevin McKay was a part-time driver who made $11 an hour driving a school bus. On this particular day, he had to find the best way to get those children and two teachers to safety. He knew the way would be full of obstacles, and that the few roads out of Paradise would be crowded with other drivers trying to escape the flames.
As he turned the bus onto Pentz Road, he could barely see through the dark smoke. Embers were falling from the clouds, igniting further small fires along the side of the road. It truly looked like hell on earth.
He Volunteered to Get Them Out
When the wildfire was reported that day, 41-year-old McKay was simply the closest bus driver to Ponderosa Elementary and he volunteered to help. McKay had spent most of his life in Paradise, having moved there when he was 12.
He was captain of the Paradise High School football team, graduating in 1995. He was now a twice-divorced father of two who worked for years as a manager at a Walgreens until the long commute and long hours wore him out. In 2018, he quit and took a job as a bus driver. Less hours meant he could start classes at the community college.
Growing Up in Paradise
His goal was to get a degree in education and teach history at Paradise High. When he pulled the bus up to the school, Mary Ludwig, a second-grade teacher, asked him, “Who are you?” She had never seen him before.
Ludwig, 50, had taught in the area since 1994, and knew pretty much every bus driver. Ludwig knew many people in Paradise because she and her nine siblings grew up there. McKay told Ludwig that day that he was new to the school district, but not to Paradise. She wasn’t expecting to get on Bus 963 when she was walking her last few second-graders out of the school that morning.
As Burnt Bark Rained Down on the Playground
Nothing that morning was expected, as the fire swept down from the Feather River Canyon with no warning. It was no place for people, let alone children. Burnt pieces of bark were raining down on the school playground.
Ludwig guided her students to the bus, as other teachers were doing. “I need you to come with me,” McKay pleaded with Ludwig as she stood at the door of the bus. Someone, he figured, had to look after the kids as he drove through what would be a ride in hell.
She Wasn’t Going to Abandon Her Students
Ludwig wasn’t one to turn her back on her students. She was a devoted teacher, who created her own lesson plans. She made learning fun (she once read “James and the Giant Peach” to her students in a bad British accent).
But the fire was gaining momentum, and Ludwig wanted to drive home and check on her own teenage son. Nonetheless, Ludwig knew that if her young child was boarding a bus with a new driver during a wildfire, she would definitely want a teacher to be onboard. She convinced a first-year kindergarten teacher, Abbie, Davis to join her.
“You’d Better Be a Good Driver”
29-year-old Davis, newly engaged, boarded the bus, naturally worried about her fiancé. “You’d better be a good driver,” Ludwig told McKay as she got on after Davis. As he pulled out of the school, he watched as Ponderosa Elementary disappeared behind him.
His plan was to cut across town to Clark Road, the second-largest road in town, which was technically able to accommodate 900 cars per hour. He planned to then head to Oroville, 24 miles away. But traffic was an issue, of course. The goal was not to get stuck, as futile as that may have been.
He Didn’t Know Them; They Didn’t Know Him
As he drove, 24 souls were sitting behind him in absolute silence. It was a stark contrast from the usual bus ride home from school. The children were too small to see over the top of their seats and hardly even visible in McKay’s rearview mirror, but he noticed the tops of their hats.
He didn’t know any of their names, and they didn’t know his. As he drove the silent bus, the air grew hot, greased with all the toxic chemicals from tons of burning household products. Embers were lunging sideways with the wind.
The Bus Was the Safest Place to Be
McKay called Ludwig and Davis up to the front of the bus to show them where the fire extinguisher and first aid kit were located. He also pointed out the two emergency exits and stressed that they should not leave the bus unless they absolutely had to.
The truth is the bus was the safest place to be. Ludwig started to realize that this new driver was the right man for the job (his managerial skills came in handy) and thanked him. He then told the women to take attendance and pair up older students with younger ones.
“You’ll See Your Mom and Dad Again, I Promise”
“And handwrite three copies as you take roll,” he told them, “So each one of us has a manifest of the kids in our care.” When Ludwig asked why, he said, “If something happens, authorities need to know who was on this bus.” The teachers followed McKay’s instructions.
One student, Rowan Stovall, had just turned 10 and was seated beside a kindergartner. The child was scared, so Rowan tried to comfort her. “You’ll see your mom and dad again,” she said as she clutched the little girl’s hand. “The bus isn’t going to catch on fire. We are going to be okay; I promise.”
Trying to Calm the Children’s Nerves
One boy tugged on Ludwig’s sleeve as she passed him in the aisle. “Is it 10 p.m.?” he asked her. He was confused as it was so dark outside. Another boy was panicking, pulling at his hair as he spoke about his “94-year-old” cat that was going to burn up.
What was even more concerning were are all the kids who were silent. Ludwig thought of how she could distract them and reassure them at the same time. There was one little girl whose last name Ludwig needed for the manifest. But she was too terrified to remember it.
Tying to Stay Calm and Collected
All the teacher could do was rub her back. Across the row from her was a student who curled herself under the seat, shielding herself from witnessing the nightmare outside of the bus. Meanwhile, McKay was trying to find the best way to Clark Road.
He knew not to panic – kids were sensitive to those around them. If the adults started panicking, the kids would become hysterical. But their anxiety did heighten whenever the teachers looked outside, took photos, and called their families. The kids could hear the fear in the teachers’ voices.
Dead Man’s Hole
Ludwig learned that her son didn’t evacuate his high school in time and was now stuck on Pearson Road, which had a drop into a ditch known as “Dead Man’s Hole” since it had no cellphone service. As for Davis, her fiancé was refusing to leave their home until he saw the school bus pass by.
McKay decided to turn on the ceiling light so other drivers could see that children were on the bus. He asked Davis to be his lookout, to call out any new spot fires along the road. That way McKay would know to change lanes and keep his distance from the flames.
A Knock on the Glass Door
But she wasn’t going to scream it out. So, McKay had to watch Davis’s eyebrows and the tilt of her head – her signal to the flames. At one point, there was a knock on the bus’s glass door. It was two of the school district’s assistant superintendents.
They emerged from the smoke, startling McKay, who opened the door for them. Their own truck caught fire in the parking lot of the school and they had no choice but to continue on foot. They boarded the bus for a few minutes, warning McKay to avoid Paradise Elementary. It was on fire.
Driving Into Ditches
The two soon got off and continued to walk, planning to help direct traffic. The fire was only getting worse. Red and blue lights from cop cars could be seen through the smoke, but officers were driving into ditches by fallen trees.
They were rushing to help people trapped in the basement of a local hospital. There was also a report of a woman who had gone into labor in a gas station parking lot. Ludwig pointed to the first responders, showing the children. “Look at those brave men coming to help us!” she called out.
Fleeting Moments of Gray
“Thank you! We love you!” the students yelled with their noses smudged on the glass. Ludwig tried to distract them by asking “Who likes pancakes?” as they drove past pancake house. There were moments when the black sky would break and it would change to light gray.
But just as quickly the darkness closed in again. They had now been on the bus for two hours and had made it only a mile. There were long moments of silence. They made into onto Pearson Road and an officer directed the bus south, away from main road out of Paradise.
One Text Message Made It Through
McKay was trying to make his way through routes only a native would know, but everywhere he went, he was turned away by officers with out-of-town uniforms – they claimed to know better. The bus was pushed to smaller streets. Luckily, a text message made it to McKay’s phone.
His girlfriend was letting him know that his family was safe and protected in Chico. She got a hotel room for his son and mother. At least he had some peace of mind in this hellish drive. They got to Roe Road, a claustrophobic lane that looked like it could ignite at any moment.
The Only Way Out
An officer flagged McKay down. He checked to see if there were kids on the bus and told McKay he’d letting him through this road before shutting it down. “Hey, man, Roe Road is highly overgrown,” McKay told the officer. “I’m worried about getting through there.”
“Just go,” the officer shouted back. “There’s no other way out.” McKay stopped and debated ignoring the cop’s order as the cars behind them honked repeatedly. As cars wedged their way into the clearance, McKay was now trapped in place. The only way out was forward at this point.
Growing Drowsy From Exhaust Fumes
“What the heck, Kevin?” Ludwig came up to say. “Why are you taking us down Roe Road?” She begged him to go another way. “You know it’s a death trap,” Ludwig pleaded. “Please do not take us down this road.”
Davis interrupted them, saying some of the children seemed to be in a state of shock. She didn’t know what to do. The kids were growing drowsy, some nearly passing out, nauseas from the carbon monoxide and exhaust fumes seeping through the locked windows. It had been hours since they had had food or water. And the bus was intolerably hot.
McKay was focused on the road ahead. The two teachers found solace in each other, clutching hands. “Look out the window, Mary,” Davis said quietly. “I don’t think we’re going to make it.” Davis told Ludwig then that she had already lost one fiancé in a riverboating accident.
What if her new one died while waiting for her? Together, she and Ludwig whispered prayers. “Please,” the women begged under their breaths, “let the smoke kill us first.” Slowly, the traffic started to move forward.
Makeshift Face Masks
McKay called to the teachers, huddled together in a seat, “All right, girls, we’ve got a job to do!” Davis darted forward; her eyes were bloodshot from the smoke. She told McKay, “The kids are starting to pass out. They can’t breathe. What should we do?”
He pulled off his extra-large undershirt over his head and tossed it at her. “Tear it into 25 squares, so we each have one,” McKay explained. “We’ll douse it with some water, and the kids can use them as masks.” Ludwig shred the shirt into pieces, and Davis poured water from a half-full bottle in her purse. It was the only water on the bus.
The Last Drops of Water
She gave each child a makeshift mask and told them to cover their mouths with the fabric. “I want you guys to suck on the rag a little bit,” Ludwig said to the children. “It’ll make your throats feel better.” She added, in an attempt to make them laugh…
“But I have to warn you, I don’t know when bus driver Kevin last washed his undershirt!” It worked; the kids giggled. Davis gave each child a tiny sip of water from her bottle. Dying from thirst herself, she knew the kids needed it more.
On a Search for Water
Ludwig took over, but tripped down the aisle, spilling the only water they had left. She told McKay that they needed to get their hands on more water. She wanted to get off and find water. “I’m not letting you off. It’s way too dangerous out there,” the driver said.
“I don’t care, Kevin,” she replied. “We need water.” He knew she was right, and so he opened the door, and watched her walk out into the darkness. Ludwig, feeling her way through the smoke, bumped into a young man who had abandoned his own car to see why the cars weren’t moving along.
An Inch Every 10 Minutes
“Do you have any water?” Ludwig asked him. “I have 22 kids on a bus, and we need it badly.” He went to check his car. A few minutes later, he came back with two plastic bottles, but they were scrunched up and nearly empty.
Knowing they had probably sat in his car for months, the teacher was still grateful. She thanked him and returned to the bus, which was still close by. It moved about an inch every 10 minutes or so. They had been trapped on Roe Road for over an hour.
A Man and a Hose
They figured they were only half a mile from Neal Road, a direct route to Oroville, and that meant safety. As Ludwig and Davis kept soaking the rags, McKay noticed a man hosing down his trailer. He asked Ludwig to go fill up their three water bottles.
The man filled the bottles and asked the teacher how many kids were on the bus. He then went into the house to fetch a case of water bottles, which was half full. “If the bus catches fire, can we come huddle with you?” Ludwig asked him. “Sure,” the man replied as he continued to hose his trailer.
Following Orders, No Complaints
Ludwig ran back to the bus, handing out water to the kids, whose lips were chapped from smoke and dehydration – their faces pink with exhaustion. The kids did as they were told; no complaints were made. The bus started to feel like an oven.
Everyone was sweating through their clothes. 10-year-old Rowan couldn’t stop looking outside. She saw a deer trapped in flames. She loved animals. It was devasting to see. Then there was a woman who looked as though she was lost on Roe Road. McKay opened the door.
Lost, Stranded on Roe Road
“Do you need a ride?” he called out to her. She was a 20-year-old preschool teacher and gratefully boarded the bus. Her car had run out of gas not too long ago and was stranded. She walked past the rows of quiet children, sitting in the back.
Neal Road – the way out – was nearing and McKay finally got a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. But panicked drivers weren’t letting the bus merge. Still, everything ahead was ablaze – homes, trees, everything. McKay had to kick the bus into gear if they were going to make it out.
Ludwig, an asthmatic, gripped her inhaler. Davis closed her eyes and prayed. McKay envisioned everyone running for their lives into the forest. A truck then cut around the bus and blocked a lane on Neal Road. The truck actually belonged to Ponderosa Elementary’s principal.
He had been tailing the bus for miles, ensuring the children got to safety. McKay then hit the gas and moved forward. “We’re moving!” he bellowed. As they passed her fiancé’s family’s home, she could see his truck parked in the driveway. Davis waved at him, drenched in emotion.
Their Final Stop
Davis’s fiancé could now make his escape, knowing she was safe. An officer blocked the bus from entering Chico, so McKay drove 25 miles to the town of Biggs, getting there at around 2 pm. It had been over six hours since they had boarded the bus.
Finally, the children, teachers, and McKay were able to get off the hell bus and breathe somewhat fresh(er) air. They took a food and bathroom break, and then were taken to Biggs Elementary. Ludwig’s father once taught at the school and seeing the familiar building brough tears to her eyes.
88 People, 11,000 Homes
Ponderosa Elementary ended up getting badly damaged by the wildfire. Only later, did McKay and his passengers learn that the wildfire – dubbed Camp Fire and lasted 17 days – that day claimed the lives of 88 people and 11,000 homes. McKay’s own house was one of them. As was Davis’s.
Ludwig’s managed to survive the blaze, but she understood that Paradise would never be the same. After McKay locked Bus 963, covered in layers of black soot and dust, he followed the coughing kids into Biggs Elementary. There, some of the students’ parents were already waiting for them.
A Message to the Parents
Rowan’s mother, Nicole Alderman, was one of the anxious parents who had spent the past few hours waiting to learn the fate of her kids. She could only wonder if Rowan “was scared, if she was alone. I was just trying to stay calm and focused, because being panicked wasn’t going to help me find her.”
She, and the other parents, received a text. It showed a snapshot of Bus 963’s manifest, the names of the students scribbled on a piece of paper. A school administrator asked the parents to make the half-hour drive to Biggs. Their children were alive.
The Dixie Fire of 2021
It’s no news that wildfires happen way too often in California. Come 2021, the traumatized town of Paradise felt their anxiety rise again when the Dixie Fire began. It became the second largest wildfire in America.
“It started at the same place the Camp Fire did, that’s all people needed to hear,” said Steve Crowder, the mayor of Paradise. His community was and still is coming to terms with the Camp Fire from 2018, which was said to be caused by downed power lines (and climate change).
Hoping the Wind Doesn’t Change Direction
“It really is tough on people,” Crowder mentioned. “It just brings back all kinds of memories.” The Dixie Fire was simply too close to home. The volcano-like plume of smoke was seen from the back of Paradise’s town hall. The people of Paradise had only the winds to pray to.
Paradise is 15 miles from where the Dixie Fire started and continued to burn. “Last Thursday, I had my truck packed and I was ready to leave. Even though I rebuilt my home and all that, it’s not worth staying,” said Paradise resident Stephen Murray.
Building Their Lives Elsewhere
Murray never left his town, making a living as a contractor there and clearing out debris from still burnt-out lots. But since it’s so dry there, he can only operate machinery during the early morning as sparks might ignite more fires.
“Unfortunately, the Dixie Fire has put me out of work for the last 20 days,” Murray said at the time. Many survivors of the Camp Fire survivors decided to leave Paradise and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Linda and Bob Oslin, for example, moved 30 minutes away after losing everything.
Living out of Suitcases
The Oslins were evacuated in the summer of 2020 due to more wildfires and assume it’s only a matter of time until they’ll have to leave again. Their suitcases are packed and their important documents are already in their truck outside.
“I have my suitcase ready to go and I just live out of my suitcase,” Linda admitted. “This is our life from May to December.” But the couple know that this new normal would be their life all year round as wildfire “seasons” are now a thing of the past.
The fire took about 95 percent of Paradise. Devastating wouldn’t be a strong enough word for most of the town’s residents. A man named Mike Petersen manages the Ace Hardware Store that somehow survived the fire.
Residents, with the help of Petersen, have slowly started rebuilding homes in the nearly empty town. “A year ago, these three homes weren’t there,” Peterson told CBS news. “A lot of people had their doubts about how many people would rebuild. It’s nice to see the progress for sure.”
Petersen is building structures that he hopes will survive future fires. He and his wife moved into a two-bedroom home that looks more like a modern barn. The whole point is that it’s built not to burn. Could these be the homes of California’s future?
When asked if they’ll worry less about their new home, Peterson replied, “Yes, and my insurance company loves it.” Vern Sneed, owner of Design Horizons, builds what it calls Q Cabins – short for “quonset hut.” Quonset Point is a naval facility in Rhode Island with metal-roofed buildings.
Noncombustible Homes From WWII
Those buildings were first-ever made during World War II. “It’s noncombustible,” Sneed stated. “It’s a product that you can’t really light on fire.” Also, a Q Cabin costs about the same as a conventional house.
Scientists say most houses ignite from wildfires because of the embers that fly into window frames or in-between the roof shingles. The Q Cabin doesn’t have those entry points. Sneed said these homes are about as close as you’re going to get to “fire-proof” homes. There’s also the problem of being literally too close to nature.
Playing With Fire
Towns like Paradise are “Wildland Urban Interface,” in which nature comes right up to someone’s front door. About 50 million homes are now in these wildfire-prone areas. They’re basically playing with fire.
A CBS news correspondent asked Sneed, “When you see all of the natural disasters, especially a state like this is facing, and what we know is coming as climate change accelerates, is this the future of home-building?” He answered, “I think noncombustible housing is the future.”