Natural disasters can be incredibly terrifying for anyone who happens to experience them firsthand. Whether it be a flood or an earthquake, these events can have a devastating impact on the affected area and the people living there. However, the residents of California have had to contend with one issue in particular.
For more than 100 years, California has faced down a number of dangerous wildfires, caused in part by the state’s warm temperatures. With the threat that they pose continuing, it’s believed that around $3 billion is spent every 12 months to tackle the fires. But despite those efforts, though, the burns can still cause untold damage.
With that in mind, The Golden State had to deal with one of its most devastating wildfires on record in November 2018. Referred to as the Camp Fire, the burn began on Camp Creek Road in northern California. Incredibly, it went on to engulf more than 200 miles of land in 17 days, wrecking more than 18,000 buildings in the process.
As the Camp Fire continued to rage, one local resident in particular was in need of assistance. Indeed, 93-year-old Margaret Newsum was at home when she heard that the wildfire was heading in her direction. At that point, the elderly woman walked outside of her house, only to receive help from an unexpected source.
Living in California certainly has its perks for the residents situated there. From the beautiful weather to the picturesque locations, it remains one of the most glamorous places in the world. However, there is one major drawback for those who call the state home, as they have to contend with yearly wildfires.
The wildfires are an unavoidable consequence of the warm weather that spans several months, alongside the dry conditions. In addition, the burns are often exacerbated by gusts of humid air referred to as Diablo winds. This combination has had the consequence of bringing about some devastating fires in California down the years.
Back in September 1889, the residents of California faced down one of the biggest wildfires in the state’s history. Known as the Santiago Canyon Fire, that burn affected San Diego County, Orange County and Riverside County over the course of six days. As it raged, it engulfed close to 470 miles of land.
Before the Santiago Canyon Fire happened, California had gone through a lengthy dry spell, which no doubt contributed to it. A few years on from the wildfire, an employee of the United States Forest Service wrote a paper covering their firsthand experience of the event. According to them, this particular burn was unlike any they’d witnessed before.
“I was living in Orange County at the time and well remember the great fire reported herein from September 24 to 26,” L.A. Barrett recalled in 1935. “Nothing like it occurred in California since the National Forests have been administered. In fact in my 33 years in the Service I have never seen a forest or brush fire to equal it.”
Barrett added, “[The Santiago Canyon Fire] covered an enormous scope of country and burned very rapidly.” Off the back of that, the next big fire to hit California occurred a few years later in 1923. Indeed, the Berkeley Fire caused a massive amount of damage in just one day, destroying more than 600 buildings in the area.
Some ten years on from that, though, The Golden State then faced one of the most dangerous wildfires in its history. In 1933 a large number of people were recruited to remove the vegetation from around Griffith Park, CA. This came as a result of another dry spell, but few could’ve predicted what happened next.
That October, a fire broke out from some of the rubbish that had been piled up, leading to a chaotic situation. The recruits attempted to put the flames out themselves, despite having no access to water in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, their efforts couldn’t stop the burn from growing ahead of the fire brigade’s arrival.
At that point, the firemen faced an additional problem, with the workers still in and around the fire itself getting in their way. Thankfully, the burn only lasted for a few hours, but it came at a high cost. Tragically, the Griffith Park Fire claimed 29 lives, while more than 150 other people suffered injuries.
Those numbers meant that the Griffith Park Fire became the most lethal blaze on record in California, and it would not be surpassed for several decades. Before 2018, only two other wildfires in the state came close to it. Both the Tunnel Fire in 1991 and the Tubbs Fire in 2017 ended more than 20 lives.
However, worse was to happen in November 2018 as a fire began on Camp Creek Road, which is located in Butte County, CA. From there, the flames spread incredibly quickly, engulfing more than 30 miles of land within 24 hours. As a result of that, more than 20 people lost their lives during that early period.
After that fierce beginning, the Camp Fire continued to rage across northern California for more than two weeks, wrecking thousands of buildings along the way. By the end of the devastating inferno, the damage totaled more than $16 billion. Unfortunately, though, the human cost of the disaster also proved massive.
Indeed, 86 people perished during the Camp Fire, surpassing the number from the Griffith Park Fire. In addition to that, only five other wildfires in American history have registered more fatalities, making it one of the nation’s most severe blazes. And the local residents in one area in particular faced the full brunt of the conflagration.
The community of Paradise, CA, suffered some catastrophic damage thanks to the fire. The area itself was left in ruins, while several denizens died there as well. A few days into the burn, the sheriff of Butte County tried to explain why it had been so tough to move everyone out of the town beforehand.
“You have to keep in mind that this was an extraordinarily chaotic and rapidly moving situation,” Sheriff Honea told the press. “The fire started in a remote area. It takes awhile for our fire resources to get there and from that point, trying to determine the path of travel and whether or not that’s going to affect populated areas, that takes time.”
Sheriff Honea’s words didn’t end there, though. “We were trying to move tens of thousands of people out of an area very rapidly with the fire coming very rapidly,” he continued. “And no matter what your plan is to do that, no plan will ever work 100 percent when you are dealing with that much chaos.”
On that note, the town of Magalia, CA, was also in danger during the early stages of the fire. As it started to progress across the community, residents were being warned about the situation via their television sets. However, one of those viewers required a helping hand to evacuate her home.
Margaret Newsum lived at home with her seven cats and required care from a local attendant due to her advancing age. Indeed, Newsum was 93 years old at the time of the fire. On that particular day, she went about her routine as per normal, with her helper heading back to Paradise at the end of her shift.
As Newsum quickly discovered, though, this wasn’t just a normal day. “I got up as usual, went in and had some oatmeal as usual,” the Magalia resident told NBC-affiliate KCRA in November 2018. “And I turned the TV on and then they said there was a fire going into Paradise.”
With that in mind, Newsum became very concerned about what might happen to her. Unfortunately for the 93-year-old, she didn’t have any relatives in the local community, meaning that she was on her own. But while the panic continued to set in, the elderly woman then made a decision that changed everything.
Newsum left her home and waited outside for a brief period. Meanwhile, the Camp Fire was spreading fast. Because she was out in the open, she eventually attracted the attention of her local garbage man Dane Ray Cummings. As soon as Cummings saw the resident, he quickly sprang into action, offering his assistance.
“I went out and was standing on the front porch when this great, big, green monster drove up, and my dear friend was emptying the garbage,” Newsum said. “I have had [Cummings] as my worker – I call him my private worker because he’s so great – and he said, ‘You’re not staying here. You’ve got to get out of here. Why are you still here?’”
As it turned out, Cummings decided to continue working that morning, despite hearing about the Camp Fire. “My route manager called me and told me the fire was coming, and to get the hell out of there,” the garbage man recalled to Inside Edition in November 2018. “It just started getting worse, more hectic, more people were coming out.”
At that point, Cummings looked to put his knowledge of the area to good use. Aware that there were a number of elderly people living in the community, he started to offer his help to those who required it. On that note, he also knew that Newsum’s house was near the end of his route in Magalia.
Cummings told KCRA, “I [have] been on that route eight years, and I just picked the people that I knew were older.” He explained, “I tried to stop and help them, and let them know that they were coming and make sure they were getting out. [Newsum] was my last stop. I probably went to 45 or 50 people to see if I could help them.”
After Cummings found Newsum outside the house, he looked to get her away from the coming fire, but there were a couple of issues. Indeed, under normal circumstances a civilian is forbidden to travel inside a garbage truck. And in addition to that, the 93-year-old was still recuperating after breaking her back.
However, that didn’t stop Cummings from aiding Newsum in her time of need. “They lifted her, and we scooted her on the seat and put the seat belt on her,” he recalled. “And [we] made sure she was up there far enough so she wouldn’t fall out either side, and that was it. We were on the road.”
It didn’t prove to be a quick journey, as Cummings and Newsum spent several hours in the garbage truck trying to get out of the community. Due to the other residents on the road, there was plenty of traffic slowing them down. As it turned out, though, the pair enjoyed their extended time together.
Cummings in particular couldn’t get enough of his new passenger, as Newsum enthralled him with stories from her past. “I wish I’d known her when she was younger,” the garbage man said. “I would’ve married her, you know what I mean? It was the best conversation I’ve had in a truck ever.”
During that chat, Cummings discovered that Newsum had survived three different bouts of cancer, as well as a number of injuries from a bizarre accident. More than 20 years ago, the Magalia resident had hit the side of a truck while out on a hang glide. But her fascinating tales didn’t end there.
Alongside those stories, Newsum also revealed that she saw the bombing of Pearl Harbor first hand. “I was to be married, and my future husband was in the Marine Corps,” she told KCRA. “All I remember is the first bomb that hit one of the ships, and the apartment that he rented for me was right at the bay.”
“And I went out to see what it was, and this Japanese plane came over,” Newsum continued. “He was so low that I could see the pilot.” On a somewhat brighter note, the elderly woman had one more story to share with Cummings on their lengthy trip away from Magalia.
Incredibly, Newsum had worked with a very famous band as one of their back-up vocalists. “The Rat Pack,” she confirmed. “Wonderful, wonderful men. The singers did the picking out. So, the next thing I know, I was in an interviewing room, and here sits Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.”
Newsum added, “All three of [The Rat Pack] were sitting there. And they said, ‘We are so thrilled to have you working for us.’” Unsurprisingly, Cummings was blown away by what he heard, as the pair eventually made their way to safety. Meanwhile, the garbage man received plenty of praise for his kind gesture on social media.
In the comments section of a Fox News post about this story on Facebook, one message stood out in particular. “This is our garbage gentleman!” wrote social media user Jana Howes. “Turns out he helped many neighbors of ours who are elderly with loading belongings! This man is a true hero!”
With that in mind, Cummings then received a fantastic award for his efforts following the Camp Fire disaster. He was subsequently named one of 2018’s Men of the Year by the news website The Washington Free Beacon. As for Newsum, her house didn’t suffer any damage from the wildfire in the end.