Remembering Paradise Fire 10 years on
John, Allyson and Lori Roach pose for a photo during an event remembering the Paradise Fire that ripped through Valley Center 10 years ago. Photo by Lisa Rose / Valley Roadrunner
October 29, 2013It's been 10 years since the Paradise Fire ripped through the core of the Valley Center community, uprooting families, decimating homes, even taking human life. First responders, pastors and residents gathered Monday evening at the Cal Fire Station on Vesper Road to reflect on the tragedy that burned 221 homes and 57,000 acres on Oct. 26, 2003. It was a moment to honor the memory of Ashleigh Roach and Nancy Morphew who lost their lives in the blaze. It was also a remembrance of a day of destruction and how a community united to heal broken spirits and start again.
Ridgeview Church Pastor Bill Trok, Valley Center's fire chaplain, spearheaded the event and told the story of the Roach family, and all they had endured that day, losing a daughter and not knowing if their other two teenage children would survive. He admits his memory has faded a bit, but a minute into his description, tears come to his eyes. He was on the front lines of the fire, alongside the Roach family, moments after 16-year-old Ashleigh was consumed by the fire and Allyson and Jason were rushed to area hospitals. Allyson and Jason survived, with Allyson suffering burns covering more than 85% of her body.
Heroes emerged from all corners of the community — from first responders to churches to ordinary citizens doing the extraordinary.
Trok rallied a team of church members to help with clean-up. Valley Center resident, David Dubois, was one of them.
"It was awesome to see people, Christian and non-Christian pull together and come as a community and help one another," said Dubois. "Despite what you had or didn't have, it didn't matter. It was part of the healing process."
The Paradise fire brought together Trok and Dan Brown, a local construction worker who knew John Roach. Brown was able to source construction vehicles and offer them to Trok's volunteers.
"The best part of it of it was the involvement of the community," said Brown. "Trucking companies, businesses of all kinds were donating their services. I joined with Bill and his team and we got a lot done."
"Government response was slow back then," said Trok. "Most of the cleanup was done by volunteers. We figured we cleaned up 60 percent of non-reservation losses."
The Valley Center Fire Relief Fund raised $365,000 and gave every penny away to survivors of the fire.
The night of the Paradise Fire, Cristina Williamson, now battalion chief at Cal Fire in Valley Center, lived on Yellow Brick Road. She had been working the fire at Camp Pendleton and came home to get a few hours' sleep. She was awakened by the howling of 35 mph Santa Ana winds and the whinnying of horses. She looked east toward Palomar Mountain and saw the glow in the valley. There was no reverse-911 in place at that time.
Pastor Bill Trok speaks at the Paradise Fire Memorial. Photo by Lisa Rose
"When I saw it, with the winds and the slope, I said to my husband, 'We have less than 20 minutes to wake up this neighborhood,'" said Williamson. "We were jumping fences and knocking on doors."
"For me, this gathering is so much more personal than on a professional level," she added.
Musician and college professor, Brandon Cesmat, a lifelong resident of Valley Center, addressed the group through poetry and song, reading aloud a piece written by the late Sandy Puccio and sharing his acoustic versions of Christian folk songs that matched the sentiment of the evening. Pastor Bill Trok addressed the crowd, lending a spiritual perspective to the collective emotion.
"I think we can all agree that it was like all hell broke loose," said Trok. "Moments like that when something comes this fast and this furious, you realize that you're not really in control. In those times in our lives, it's important to remember that you have something to hold onto. There is hope."
Meeting John Roach for the first time on the day his daughter had died, Trok recalled his remarkable strength and hope in that instant. "Out of the darkness of those days came the light," he said. "And you know how I know that love can show the way? The evidence is standing right over there. Allyson Roach.
"After months of fighting infections, enduring the pain, the treatments, the amputations, the more than 30 surgeries, Allyson was released from the hospital," he added. "No one expected that. There is never any shrinking back with her."
Today, Roach is now married, goes by Allyson Watson and has a 15-month-old son, Aydhan. She has a college degree, is a photographer and has toured the country telling her story as a message of hope, fire preparation and the power of perseverance.
"She's my hero," said Trok.
The Paradise fire, which burned about 56,000 acres, was one of three huge wildfires burning in San Diego County that day. The largest, known as the Cedar fire, eventually burned 280,000 acres and killed 14 people.