Seal Beach women survive and learn to thrive through tragedy
Tears seep to the surface of her face, almost without summon, as Dianne Nicholson recalls her last day in Paradise.
It was a normal Thursday morning, as Dianne planned her day.
Dianne and her late husband Jim had moved to Paradise from Seal Beach 10 years ago to be closer to her mother, Helen Cook. They even bought the home next door to her mom’s house.
Helen lived in Paradise for 58 years. “We loved Paradise,” said Dianne, noting that “mom used to fish and watch beautiful animals that came up to the back porch.”
Dianne and her husband had never sold their home in Seal Beach, but for sure they were happy in Paradise, California
Sadly, just one year after moving, Dianne’s husband Jim died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Dianne had met Jim Nicholson 15 years before they married. When they met Dianne was single, Jim was married, and they were both teachers in the Los Angeles school system.
They became friends but that was that.
Ten years later, while visiting Helen, Dianne unexpectedly ran into Jim in a Paradise hardware store. “What are you doing here,” she asked? Jim said his parents lived in Paradise as well. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she thought to herself.
Jim told Dianne that his wife had died so Dianne offered to be a friend if he needed to talk. “He never called.” Five years later, however, fate again intervened.
Dianne said she had reluctantly accepted a one-year teaching assignment in Gardena at a middle school and soon found out Jim was a counselor at the same school. This again offered them a chance to chat. This time, Jim’s grieving was over. They dated, married, and lived in their home in Seal Beach for 20 years before retiring from their teaching careers as the couple moved to Paradise to be near their parents.
With Jim’s untimely passing, Dianne lived alone, still next door to her mom’s house. Helen had since moved into a local nursing home.
During most days, Dianne says she stayed busy managing their properties, which now also included four area rentals.
With its nearby mountain streams, the small city of Paradise is nestled between two ridges in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Beautiful patches of forests and rolling hills offered residents a modern life filled with the wonders of nature.
At approximately 10 a.m. on November 8, 2018, however, all that changed.
“I got a phone call from my neighbor,” said Dianne, who otherwise suspected nothing. “She told me to leave and leave now. They said a fire was coming.”
Now panicked, she quickly called the nursing home and found out staffers there were putting residents in vans and they were leaving too. Her mom, she learned was in a van with a driver and one other resident.
“I grabbed a pair of pants, a shirt, my wallet and passport and that was about it,” she says. Dianne, who had been checking on her mom’s house when she got the call, rushed back to her home “to grab some cat food for their cat Extra.”
Dianne said somebody in Paradise had an extra cat, so she took it and named it “Extra.”
But “there’s no way a cat’s going to jump into a car,” said Dianne, so she tearfully had to leave it behind.
“I was never so afraid in my life,” she said, shaking as she tearfully retells the story. Dianne drove to meet the van with her mom in it and they darted off trying to escape the approaching inferno.
Within minutes, she said, a whipping wind blew the Camp Fire “up both sides of the canyon.” Giant torrents of smoke and flame rushed towards them.
“I told mom, let’s keep going and let’s keep praying. If we don’t make it, I’ll see you in heaven.”
They finally reached the main road to Chico only to find another problem confronting them.
Cars were jammed and Skyway Road. Traffic was at a standstill as residents tried to flee.
“There were 10,000 cars,” she said. “You couldn’t go forward, you couldn’t go backward, you just sat there. The animals were burning. It was horrible.”
Flames from the rushing fire now nipped at each side of her car. “One lady’s car behind us wouldn’t start,” she said. “I saw her jump into somebody’s truck moments before the fire blew up her car.”
Flames rushed over them, yet their lives were somehow spared. Eventually, they made it down the hill to nearby Chico.
Nearly 100 residents were not so lucky and died in the fire.
Though they had escaped, they began to understand what they had lost. Their church. Their friends. Her house. Her mom’s house. Four rentals. Their coffee shops. Shopping places. The animals. Everything was gone within minutes. Every possession. Within minutes, life as had lived had simply vanished. Every possession reduced to ash.
“Those were very hard days.”
“We lived on cash until we could get settled,” she said. The banks had burned, and everything had to be reset in Chico. “It was awful,” she said, “but then I started to realize God has a plan.”
After getting some replacement clothes from the Salvation Army, a new reality began to emerge.
Dianne said only now did she begin to realize the significance of the many coincidences that had occurred before the fire.
Moreover, Dianne believes in the days since moving back to Seal Beach, she has since witnessed three modern miracles.
“What’s happened to us is amazing,” said Dianne. Her faith was strong before the fire, but after, “I know God has a plan.”
While many in Paradise who lost their homes were forced to live in travel trailers in the Wal-Mart parking lot, Dianne and her mom Helen said they were so “blessed” to still have the beautiful home in Seal Beach.
Dianne now realized why they had never sold their home in Seal Beach. It would become their “house of refuge.” Once it became clear they would return, Dianne said they gave their tenants sufficient time to find somewhere else to live and moved in as soon as they could.
For months after the fire, sometimes with her mom, Dianne would travel to Paradise once a week, to “sift through the ashes to see if there was absolutely anything we could find.”
What they found was mostly fragments. No photos. No clothes. Not much of anything remained intact.
They did find a handful of coins melted to the jar they burned in. They also found two of three pistols they once owned, a Barretta, a 9-millimeter. There was no trace of the .38-special. There was nothing more to find. Extra had not been seen since the fire.
But a few weeks in, things began to change.
On a routine trip to examine the ashes, there was a surprise waiting for them.
Extra, the cat, was alive and well, waiting for them where the porch had been before it burned. “She jumped into my lap and hasn’t left since,” said Dianne.
Besides Extra the cat, the only thing to survive completely intact was their Nativity set. They have since cleaned it, repainted it and placed it prominently in their home.
And then, what Dianne describes as three miracles began to happen.
“Since we had found Extra, we needed a pet door” said Dianne. “So, I looked in the paper and found a local handyman. I called him to come install it.”
When Bob, the handyman, showed up to do the work, Dianne and her mom were shocked. “We started talking to him and telling him what happened to us, we couldn’t believe what he told us.”
As it turned out, this Seal Beach handyman, as a member of Samaritan’s Purse, a Billy Graham ministry, had gone to Paradise after the fire to assist in the cleanup. He described the work on Bennett Road in Paradise as Dianne and her mom listened in awestruck disbelief.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Dianne, who again saw it as divine. “What are the chances of that?” she asked. Imagine, a local handyman coming to install a pet door who had cleaned their property in Paradise!
Then, the pastor of Grace Community Church, where they now attend services, offered a volunteer to come and read the Bible to Helen. Dianne said her mom and the volunteer became fast friends. “They would tell each other stories,” she said.
Dianne said after her insurance settlement, she “couldn’t afford to buy very much,” yet Dianne said she did manage to buy a duplex in Chico, a college town.
“Can you believe that the lady (volunteer) who had come to read the Bible to my mom had a son returning from Alaska, with two dogs, and could not find a place to live in Chico,” said Dianne.
Dianne said she could hardly believe it but offered Sandy, the volunteer, to rent her duplex, with a fenced in yard, to the son.
“It helped him and helped me, how about that?” said an incredulous Dianne.
Things were trending nicely, so Dianne was a little worried when two officers from Seal Beach Police knocked on her door at 2 a.m. last week. “They identified themselves and showed me their badges,” said Dianne. “I didn’t know what to think” but she let them in.
Then they asked, “Mrs. Nicholson, do you own a .38-special?”
After listening to them, Dianne said she could hardly believe the one gun they could not find had miraculously found its way to her door.
“Apparently, they arrested a gang member from Santa Ana driving a stolen car with my gun in the back seat.”
“They’re going to get him for looting, stealing a car, and now,” she pauses, then laughs, “elder abuse!”
Sgt. Nick Nicholas, public information officer for the Seal Beach Police Department, confirmed the gun was recovered by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and handed to the local department to return to Mrs. Nicholson.
Although overcome by tears and shaking when her story began, Dianne’s mood is much more positive near the end. “I’m thankful for many blessings,” said Dianne. “I think they are miracles.”
There’s good news for mom too. Helen, now 104, will soon have her own place. Long Beach real estate agent Jon Rodriguez stopped by to show Helen, a former realtor, photos of the new condo in San Pedro he was able to secure with her settlement.
Rodriguez also told Helen stories about his recent trip to Montana, where he said the countryside was like Paradise. He showed her a photo of the cabin they stayed in, which he said had been built by indigenous Americans. “Are you sure?” asked Helen.
Blessings have not only come to Dianne but Helen as well. In her yard in Paradise, Helen always had a large, six-foot statue of St. Francis. Because of its composition, it survived as well but had to be given to family. One of their neighbors in Seal Beach recently moved to a larger home and Rossmoor, “and they asked my mom if she would take their smaller statue of St. Francis so now, she can see it every morning.”
It’s hard to imagine surviving a fiery threat on your life only to endure the reduction to ashes of your most every possession. The mementos of their lives are now little more than scorched metal and ash.
And yet, from those ashes created two years ago, Dianne and her mom, Helen, have chosen the high road on the journey to a happier new life. Whether touched by angels or merely a simple witness to a trial by fire, Dianne Nicholson says she has learned a valuable lesson about life.
Paradise, it seems, is anywhere you can find it.