As the Camp Fire encroached on Magalia, a 93-year-old woman stepped out on her front porch hoping someone might see her.
Then, her garbageman showed up.
As Butte County’s Camp Fire rapidly spread Thursday morning, Margaret Newsum began her day as she always does.
“I got up as usual, went in and had some oatmeal as usual, and I turned the TV on and then they said there was a fire going into Paradise,” she said.
Her caregiver, who lives in Paradise, was already gone for the day.
Newsum was alone with her two indoor cats. She has five others that live outdoors.
Fearing what was to come, she stepped outside. Moments later, a familiar face arrived in his brand-new truck.
“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, and I have had him 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?'” she recalled.
That man was Dane Ray Cummings, a Waste Management driver.
After discovering Newsum had no family in the area and couldn’t reach her caregiver by phone, he decided to break company protocol and load her into his truck with the help of people nearby.
“They lifted her, and we scooted her on the seat and put the seat belt on her and 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,” said Cummings.
They had to be careful. Newsum is recovering from a broken back.
The garbageman had been alerted to the fast-moving fire a short time earlier by a supervisor who wanted him to cut bait and head home. Cummings didn’t and instead finished his route. He wanted to get to Newsum’s part of Magalia because he knew there would be dozens of older residents in need of help.
“I been on that route eight years, and I just picked the people that I knew were older, and I tried to stop and help them and let them know that they were coming and make sure they were getting out,” he said. “She was my last stop. I probably went to 45 or 50 people to see if I could help them.”
Both say the drive was a grind — five hours down the hill to safety as panicked residents fled their homes.
The two had time to talk, and Cummings learned that despite years of dumping her garbage and eating her homemade cookies, he really didn’t know a whole lot about Newsum.
“I wish I’d known her when she was younger. I would’ve married her, you know what I mean? It was the best conversation I’ve had in a truck ever,” he said.
“He learned my history from the time I was born until today,” said Newsum, who turns 94 in February.
She told him about overcoming cancer three times and being broadsided by an 18-wheeler after hang gliding at the age of 70, which led to numerous broken bones and a lengthy recovery.
Newsum recalled witnessing the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I was to be married, and my future husband was in the Marine Corps,” she said. “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. He was so low that I could see the pilot.”
To this day, she said, she sill has nightmares of what she saw there.
As if that wasn’t enough, she talked about her time as a backup singer, including for a group of men who achieved international fame.
“The Rat Pack. Wonderful, wonderful men,” she said. “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. All three of them were sitting there, and they said, ‘We are so thrilled to have you working for us.'”
Cummings was left speechless.
The Camp Fire never reached Newsum’s home on Dana Circle, but it did solidify a bond beyond a weekly pickup.