.357 String Band’s Derek Dunn Still Thankful & Giving After Losing Home in California Fire

It seems like the calamities keep coming at such a daunting clip these days, before you can digest the scope and severity of one, another comes up and knocks the previous one out of the news cycle. Even then, the gravity of devastation and loss of life in the “Camp Fire” in California that completely destroyed the town of Paradise is something like we’ve never seen, and may take months to fully assess, while the community has years of healing ahead.

Though they never hit the big time or won any major awards, those who are familiar with the legacy of the .357 String Band know they were one of the most important bands in underground roots music history, combining break neck speed, world-class instrumentation, compelling songwriting, and a punk attitude into a string outfit that still to this day is hard to top. There had never been anything like the .357 String Band before, and there probably will never be anything like it again. The band’s album Fire & Hail was Saving Country Music’s 2008 Album of the Year.

After the band officially called it quits in 2011, banjo player and songwriter Joseph Huber launched a solo career and remains a critically-acclaimed performer whose records have produced some of the greatest singer/songwriter material in the last 7 or 8 years. Upright bass player Rick Ness landed on his feet as one of the primary cast members of the Discovery Channel’s docu-series Gold Rush, and might be the most well-recognized of the bunch. Mandolin player and songwriter Jayke Orvis went on to have his own solo career and play with The Goddamn Gallows on many tours. Mandolin/dobro player Billy Cook also remains active in music.

But guitar player, songwriter, and front man Derek Dunn has been the .357 String Band member that has remained mostly out of the spotlight since the band broke up. Originally from Milwaukee where the .357 String Band was based, Dunn released an EP called Poisonous Serpents in 2014 that worked a bit like an epitaph of his time with the band. He also went on a European tour with the .357-inspired Dinosaur Truckers in 2014 and played a few other shows, but mostly has been retired from music since his .357 days.

Instead of trying to slog it out in the music business, Derek Dunn and his partner Kate Connelly began spending a lot of time camping and traveling to various parts of California from Wisconsin. Dunn attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and finished his undergraduate degree online. The couple bought an RV, eventually landing in Paradise, California in the northern Sierra Nevada’s after finding a suitable RV park that was hospitable to their dog Pickles, and within driving distance of a community college for Kate to continue to pursue a biology degree.

“I was really trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Derek Dunn explains. “I asked myself what people had the most influence on me when I was younger, aside from my parents, and I immediately thought of a small handful of teachers throughout my life. So I started looking into teaching, and meeting all of these people who were teachers.”

Dunn got an extra shot of inspiration to pursue teaching via fellow underground roots musician Possessed by Paul James, who works as a Special Education teacher in Texas.

“Kody Oh from Calamity Cubes showed me the new Possessed By Paul James album, and I found out he was a teacher. Possessed by Paul James was nice enough to return my Facebook message and call me back right before he was getting on stage at a festival somewhere,” says Dunn.

Derek Dunn then took a test to become a substitute teacher, and applied to the Paradise Unified School District. He started subbing in everything from Kindergarten to shop class, but found his true calling when he substituted in a classroom for students with emotional disabilities. “I never even knew a classroom like that existed, but I found I had a knack for communicating with the kids in there. While I was subbing, the in-class Clinician encouraged me to apply for the job as an intern, and to start taking graduate classes so I could qualify. For the last three years, I’ve been building what’s called the Intensive School-Based Treatment Program at Paradise High School with Larry, my clinician, and Paige and Michelle, my aides, while taking classes online to get my preliminary teaching credential, which I finally got this year.”

Derek Dunn and Kate had finally found their place in Paradise, California. And then tragedy struck.

“I woke up on the 8th of November, and we could tell that there was fire near us,” Dunn recalls. “The sky turns orange whenever there’s big forest fires in the state, and we could see the smoke and orange light as the sun started to come up. There was ash falling on our house, which is unsettling, but had happened before. As soon as I got to school, a big chunk of ash fell in my eye, and all of a sudden I realized the fire was really near, and that it was serious. An announcement came on the PA telling kids that school was cancelled, and that those who had ways home or rides should leave or be picked up. Over the next hour, the sky grew angrier and angrier, and it became more and more obvious that there was fire bearing down on Paradise.”

The first evacuations ordered were for the eastern quarter of Paradise. But as the fire drew near, the entire town was evacuated.

“I was texting with Kate, who was packing our go bag and animals into the car at home, so I was free to stay at the school and help out. It’s hard for me to picture what happened next, and it’s still sort of hard to think about. Parents were coming to pick up their kids, but more schools were being evacuated from further up the Ridge, and students were being moved from school to school. Finally at the high school we ended up with 62 kids left in the cafeteria, and no bus coming to pick them up. So we ended up throwing kids into staff’s personal cars and taking them down the hill. I drove down with four students I didn’t know in my car, and we barely made it out of Paradise.”

“Big gobs of fire were falling down like dripping liquid off the pine trees, and hitting the car and street, exploding in sparks,” Dunn continues. “It was dark as midnight from the smoke, and the four lane road went down to one lane of cars weaving around flames and trying not to hit each other – one side of the car would get super hot, then the other, as we would snake around flames and sparks. Finally we were able to get down the hill, and after a little jagging around I was able to get the students who were with me signed into the PUSD shelter where parents were coming to pick up their kids. The staff of the ridge schools and the transportation people all really deserve a huge amount of recognition – they were able to safely evacuate over 3,000 students from that ridge while the town was on fire. Many people were not so lucky. People died in their cars, in their homes, running down the street.”

Paradise, California was completely destroyed in the fire, and the disaster has since been declared the most destructive fire in California history. So far there have been 81 confirmed fatalities, with that number expected to rise, making it the sixth deadliest fire in US history. 153,336 acres burned, destroying 17,148 structures, including 12,637 single-family homes and 118 apartment buildings. Damage estimates range upwards of 10 billion.

A Go Fund Me page was set up to help Derek Dunn and Katie Connelly get their feet beneath them after the disaster. It quickly surpassed the $5,000 goal thanks to the network of fans that still hold the .357 String Band in fond memory. Derek and Katie have now pledged to take proceeds from the campaign to buy Christmas presents for Dunn’s students.

“Paradise is a poor town, and there are thousands of people who have been impacted by this fire in a much larger ways than Kate and myself,” Dunn says. “As we recover from this fire, we are humbled with gratitude – first and foremost, to be alive and safe with our animals, and also to have friends and family reach out to support us. We are able to create a GoFundMe campaign and have friends and family who are in a position to donate. Many of the families on the ridge never had internet access. Since we were so fortunate to be supported so robustly by our friends, we’ve started passing some help on to other families and individuals whom we know, and we are going to be able to get some nice gifts for my students for the holidays this year.”