How high school football provided an escape from Camp Fire

The division championship game between Durham and East Nicolaus.

Camp Fire brought destruction to towns across Butte County. But one team made it back to the field — and even to a title game.

In its first 24 hours, the most destructive wildfire in California history burned the equivalent of one football field every three seconds. But even as it incinerated virtually the entire town of Paradise, Calif., drone photos show that Butte County’s Camp Fire spared, oddly enough, the Paradise High School football field. The grass is still green, and the hashmarks, though faded, are still visible. Its bleachers are intact and eerily empty.

Before the fire, the Paradise Bobcats were enjoying a successful season, going 8-2 thanks in large part to the talents of senior quarterback Colby Cline. The day after the Camp Fire began, they were supposed to host their first playoff game on that very field. “I sent a text out to all the football players the morning it started and told them, ‘Hey, we’re going to practice today at three o’clock, no matter what— I’ll see you then,’” recalls Paradise head coach Rick Prinz. “Little did I know, that wasn’t going to happen.”

The fire’s devastation, now well-documented, was swift and thorough. 85 people are dead, with 11 still missing. 13,972 residences were destroyed. Evacuations were ordered and classes and activities were cancelled as flames swept through towns. “We had 105 players in our football program, from freshman to varsity, and three of them have homes standing,” says Prinz. “We’re still trying to wrap our minds around it.”

Butte County is a close-knit community of interconnected towns with some rural patches, where people needed to evacuate horses and pigs as urgently as family heirlooms. Durham, about 15 minutes southwest of Paradise, was another town forever changed by the fire.

“We all have family members or friends who lost their homes. Everybody knows somebody,” says Brev Creech, the head football coach at Durham High School, who was forced to evacuate; the fire came so close it burned his fence and mailbox. “We could see one house burning as we were leaving. For me, seeing that meant that all of our houses were probably going to go, as far as I was concerned.”

17-year-old Durham senior tackle Daniel Allen lives on the outskirts of town, adjacent to a number of ranches. While Durham proper wasn’t threatened, those who lived closer to its fringes were, and on his way to school Thursday morning it became clear he and his family would have to leave. One of his teammates texted to make sure he was alright, and to see if he needed any help evacuating. From there the football group text quickly became a place to check in and make sure everyone and their families were safe.

As he left his house, Allen also thought that would be the last time he would see it—he could even see the fire coming down the hillside. “It would catch a propane tank and shoot up a spout of fire, and then it would catch a house and the fire would intensify and the smoke would go darker,” he says. “My dad said, ‘Grab whatever you want to grab, the house is going.’” He took the box that had all of his old football jerseys, and his Xbox.

The Durham High Trojans were also supposed to start their postseason the day after the fire began, just in a different division than Paradise. But games across Northern California were cancelled that weekend because of both the fire and the intense, oppressive smoke. There was no escaping the air — even indoors, if the building wasn’t totally sealed, people had to wear masks. “There was just floating ash in the sky,” says Creech. “You could see it, you could taste it, you could smell it. It looked like a real dense fog and the whole valley was thick with it.”

Once he and others who had evacuated could finally return to their homes — for many, that was Thanksgiving weekend — their work wasn’t done. “We literally had to wipe down every wall in our house, to help get some of that smoke smell out,” says Jason Slightom, Durham’s junior varsity coach.

Courtesy of UAS task force on behalf of Butte County Sheriff’s Office | Photo illustration by Karyim Carreia
An overhead view of the Paradise High School football field after the fire.

The Paradise football team didn’t have the option to return to their homes or to the field — though they would have liked to keep pushing into the postseason. “A lot of the guys end up playing at Butte College and then moving on from there, which is what Aaron Rodgers did,” says Prinz; the Packers QB is the area’s most beloved football alum. “I’m not saying we have an Aaron Rodgers, but we have some players that can play at the next level.”

Cline is one, as are running back Jacob Weldon and linebacker Trevor Rickson. Despite the fact that the team was headed to the playoffs — where those players heading to the next level could have gotten more tape — it was immediately apparent they would need to forfeit their season.

“Some of the kids wanted to play, but out of my eight coaches, six had houses that burned down.” — Paradise head coach Rick Prinz

“The local schools were so fantastic about offering equipment and space, but when the devastation started showing up, it was just… too much had happened,” says Prinz, who has been the head coach at Paradise for 20 years. “Some of the kids wanted to play, but out of my eight coaches, six had houses that burned down. One player texted, ‘I would love to play another game, but I just lost all of my possessions and my home. We need to focus on a place to live.’ That pretty much summed it up.”

Some former residents of Paradise, who had no other place to go, set up trailers, campers and tents in the parking lots of Durham and other nearby towns; any available apartments and houses in the area have long since been snapped up. “The town is swollen with all these people and it’s starting to get cold, and not all of them have a place to move into,” says Creech.

His team, though, was just looking for an indoor location to practice. Durham High was locked down for use by the sheriff and the military police, and most gyms were understandably being used as shelters. But with school cancelled, the kids had little to do. A week after the fire started Creech and his staff were finally able to negotiate a slot in the middle school gym so that their top-seeded team could get a practice in before their rescheduled playoff game, which would take place 45 minutes north in a less-smoky area.

“It was a little harder to focus, those first couple practices,” says Slightom. “They’re out there talking about [the fire], and they had all this extra energy because they’d been cooped up because the smoke was so bad.”

But even though they felt at a disadvantage due to the lack of practice time, the game — which was held at a neutral site — was still a welcome respite for the entire team. It began with a moment of silence, and Durham wore the green and gold of Paradise High on their helmets to pay tribute to the fire’s victims. Durham took home a dominant 49-7 win, even as the wind pushed more smoke their way over the course of the game.

“It was just a huge victory,” says Allen. “I think it proved how good our team really is.”

“You’ve got stuff that’s going on and you’ve gotta deal with, but it was nice to get that one little break, for a couple hours, where you could kind of clear your mind and focus on football,” adds Slightom. “The kids played well, had fun, and for a moment, everything was good again.”

The next week, rain brought some relief from the smoke. By Thanksgiving, they could finally practice outdoors again worry-free, even if the evacuees couldn’t yet return home.

“My only escape has been to go out there and play [football] with my friends” — Durham senior tackle Daniel Allen

“My only escape has been to go out there and play [football] with my friends,” says Allen. Allen’s father is a detective with the county sheriff, and has been working nearly nonstop. “It’s almost like a second family. It rained the past couple practices, and it’s just fun to go out and play football in the mud. It’s really been my best way to cope with how this fire’s affected me.”

But as the Trojans were preparing for the next round of the playoffs, news about the rising death toll kept coming; the Camp Fire was only finally contained early last week. “Mentally, it’s been really hard even for me to deal with football,” Creech says. “We keep preaching that we’re going to get on the field and just give everybody something to do, give everybody something to watch, give everybody some excitement and some happiness. That’s kind of our job. We’d like to do that for the community, at the very least for two hours. And then we go back to helping our friends and families.”

The Friday after Thanksgiving, Creech found out they might be able to play their next game at home — the first event at Durham High since the fire started. Not only did the sheriff’s department and military police have to give them the all clear first, the entire school had to be deep cleaned to get rid of the ash, debris and soot. “We had to pressure wash everything — people sitting on the bleachers would have been sitting in a pile of ash,” says Creech. The team only had access to the locker room for the first time since the fire started an hour before the game began.

They won again, 18-7, in a tough battle versus Colusa High School. “Even with a big natural disaster and tragedy, we could kind of put it all behind us and focus on this one game,” says Allen. “People could go and say, ‘Hey, let’s have some fun, let’s watch the football game and not have to worry about this fire.’”

Courtesy of Brev Creech | Photo illustration by Karyim Carreia
Coach Brev Creech’s view as the fire swept through Butte County.

The fire was officially contained on Sunday, November 25th, ultimately ravaging 153,336 acres. Normalcy is still a faraway concept for Paradise families, most of whom have not yet been allowed back into the town to see what remains of their homes; those who have can only to sift through the rubble and account for the all the damage to the parts of the town that weren’t left in ashes.

“We just hope we can rebuild and get it back,” says Prinz. “It won’t be the same.”

Yet sports provide a familiar comfort for student-athletes, who can still compete with their Paradise teams. And though his football team couldn’t finish the season, Prinz’s priority is keeping the recruiting process for his best seniors on track, even as they scatter. “I think some of the recruiting guys might even give them a bigger chance, hearing where they’re from and what they’ve been through,” he adds.

Five days after Camp Fire was contained, the Durham Trojans faced their rivals, East Nicolaus, for the division championship. They ultimately fell in the championship game, 46-14. But although they didn’t win the title, life may soon more or less return to normal for Durham residents and students, with the high school re-opening its doors this past Monday.

“I was not expecting this to be one of the scenarios of my first year as a head coach here at Durham,” says Creech. “It’s been a lot of adversity and a lot of emotion. But at least we had a normal opportunity to play a home game with our kids thinking about football.”

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *