“Have you ever had anyone tell you that the people you love the most are dead?”
Erin Dewell, mother of Trenten Dewell from Troop 316 in Paradise, California, and wife of Don Dewell, says she’ll never forget the call she got on Nov. 8, 2018.
“I hope you never experience a situation in which you think the people you care about the most – your child, your family – have perished,” she told me by phone when I asked her what she remembers the most about that day.
Nov. 8, 2018, was the day of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Erin, a Troop 316 assistant Scoutmaster, had been working about 45 minutes away, in relative safety. Trenten and Don, however, were stuck at their home in Paradise, right in the middle of it all.
Thanks to what Trenten had learned while earning the Emergency Preparedness merit badge, the Dewells had designated a friend’s house as the place to meet if there ever was an event like this. But while Erin had made it there, Trenten and Don had not.
“Don managed to get a phone call out that the fire was there, they were surrounded, and they couldn’t get out,” says Erin. “And then he said goodbye.
“We never say goodbye. We always just say, ‘love you.’ ”
Later that day, Erin heard from the search and rescue team. They had made it to the house next door to the Dewells but couldn’t get to the Dewells’ property due to the massive destruction.
“They said they didn’t have time to recover their bodies, but there was no way anyone could have survived that,” she says.
A Scout troop disrupted
Troop 316 was chugging along with about 30 active families, doing all the things that healthy Scout troops do. Then came Nov. 8, 2018.
“The fire affected everyone’s life within a 100-mile radius, and certainly anyone who lived in Paradise,” says Scoutmaster Wally Seidenglanz. “Your friends moved away. Your community changed. Every aspect of life changed. Even if your house didn’t burn down, it was still a different place than it was.”
Seidenglanz says he remembers early on making a promise with the other troop leaders: Troop 316 was going to continue. Scouting in Paradise was going to continue.
“We made a commitment that we were going to maintain our program at the highest level we could,” he says. “Everything else in the kids’ lives had been radically altered and it was our stated goal to not let this be altered.”
Kids in Paradise were going to school in grocery stores or shopping malls. Churches were meeting at restaurants or in someone’s living room. There were no school plays or school musicals or band practice or football practice.
“Nothing was normal,” Erin says. “A lot of Scouting families moved to other communities, or to other states. There was no housing available. They couldn’t see themselves hanging on hanging on hanging in a state of limbo, so they moved.”
Troop 316 lost about half of its membership, but Scouting continued.
“As fast as we could, we got back to doing a monthly camping trip,” says Seidenglanz. “Weekly meetings … Rank advancement … You know, there’s only so much you can do. You can’t change what has happened. But you can influence that little circle of kids by making sure they have a Scout meeting.”
Troop 316 stored its equipment in the local Elks Lodge. When that burned to the ground, the troop lost everything.
But Scouting continued.
“People really stepped up to support the Scouts, both inside and outside of Scouting,” says Seidenglanz.
Kids started to go camping again. They advanced in rank. Some even earned their Eagle.
“It was nice to go back,” says Seidenglanz. “It was a nice break from dealing with insurance companies and the smoke and all the other garbage that was around.”
A family reunited
It wasn’t until much later in the day on Nov. 8, 2018, that Erin knew for sure that her son and husband were alive.
Trenten had dug a pit in the ground and protected his father from the brunt of the flames. At one point, Don was overcome by the smoke, but Trenten revived him.
When the flames passed, Don and Trenten helped their neighbors get out, too. The Dewells’ truck, miraculously, still worked. Eventually, Don was able to call Erin and let her know they would be at their emergency meeting place shortly.
Hours after the fire had passed, the Dewells were reunited.
“I was euphoric almost,” says Erin. “It was just a glorious moment.”
Don and Trenten were so dehydrated that the soot from the fire was still stuck to their teeth. Don told Erin that at one point, he thought the pit Trenten had dug would be his grave.
Erin says the first time Don was able to completely express what happened was at a Troop 316 meeting weeks later.
“None of the Scouts knew what Trenten had done,” says Erin. “Don said, ‘I need to tell you guys what happened in the fire. I didn’t have the respect for the fire that I should have.’
“The whole room was absolutely silent. I think everybody was just blown away.”
It’s been almost four years since the fire, and life around Paradise still isn’t normal. Seidenglanz lives in nearby Oroville, California. After staying with their friends in Chico, California, the Dewells have returned to Paradise.
And Troop 316 continues to recover, along with the rest of the community.
Sometimes, Erin thinks back to when she signed Trenten up for Cub Scouts more than a decade ago.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says. “The Cubmaster said, ‘About 1% of you will make it to Eagle.’ And on the way home, Trenten said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be in that 1%.”
Last spring, Trenten earned his Eagle. Since the fire, five other Troop 316 Scouts have either earned Eagle or are in the final stages of earning the highest rank in Scouts BSA.
And Scouting continues.