Camp Fire be­comes one of state’s worst blazes

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Paige St. John, Louis Sa­h­a­gun, An­drea Castillo, Taryn Luna and Anna M. Phillips

PAR­ADISE — The sign that greets vis­i­tors to this town in the Sierra Ne­vada foothills proudly states: “May you find Par­adise to be all its name im­plies.”

But af­ter a fast-mov­ing wild­fire rav­aged this com­mu­nity of 27,000 peo­ple, forc­ing thou­sands to flee by car and on foot, Par­adise has be­come some­thing else en­tirely. It has joined the grow­ing list of Cal­i­for­nia towns and cities dev­as­tated by one of the worst fire sea­sons on record.

Of­fi­cials said late Fri­day that more than 6,700 struc­tures were de­stroyed in the fire, a stun­ning level of de­struc­tion that will make this one of the most dev­as­tat­ing in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory. At least nine peo­ple died.

On Fri­day, a day af­ter the Camp Fire broke out, this formerly thriv­ing com­mu­nity sat un­der a dark canopy of ash and smoke.

Hun­dreds of homes and busi­nesses had been lev­eled and re­duced to piles of twisted metal. Tall pine trees and util­ity poles smol­dered. Ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, at least five of the nine schools in Par­adise were de­stroyed, in­clud­ing Par­adise El­e­men­tary School.

Cars aban­doned by flee­ing mo­torists who found them­selves un­able to es­cape lay crum­pled in the road­ways, their tires melted.

The bod­ies of five peo­ple were dis­cov­ered on Edge­wood Lane in ve­hi­cles over­taken by the fire. Butte County Sher­iff Kory L. Honea said they could not im­me­di­ately be iden­ti­fied be­cause they were burned so badly.

“There were peo­ple who weren’t able to get out,” Honea said, speak­ing from a makeshift com­mand post at Butte Col­lege, which had been closed Thurs­day. As he talked, flakes of white ash fell on his uni­form as strong winds con­tin­ued to sweep across the nearby burn­ing ridges.

Au­thor­i­ties are re­cov­er­ing bod­ies “with as much dig­nity as we can af­ford them,” he said.

It could be weeks be­fore of­fi­cials de­ter­mine the cause of the Camp Fire, named be­cause it be­gan near Camp Creek Road in Butte County. On Fri­day, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. no­ti­fied state reg­u­la­tors that one of its high-volt­age power lines lo­cated near where the fire be­gan had mal­func­tioned shortly be­fore the first flames were re­ported Thurs­day morn­ing.

Fu­eled by strong north­east winds and a parched land­scape, the fire grew to 70,000 acres by mid­day Fri­day.

It forced tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in Par­adise and sur­round­ing towns to evac­u­ate. Many of them spilled onto a four-lane road called Sky­way — the main evac­u­a­tion route out of Par­adise — that quickly be­came jammed. Res­i­dents de­scribed sit­ting in traf­fic as flames on both sides of the road reached for their cars.

Faced with wors­en­ing grid­lock, fire of­fi­cials said they made a cru­cial de­ci­sion to fo­cus their en­ergy on res­cu­ing peo­ple stranded on the road, un­able to move, rather than try to beat back the grow­ing in­ferno.

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, it was only 5 per­cent con­tained.

The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said that a few thou­sand fire­fight­ers had been dis­patched to bat­tle the blaze. At least three had been in­jured.

Parts of Par­adise were still burn­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon as law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties and util­ity com­pany work­ers be­gan to sur­vey the dam­age. Honea said con­di­tions were too “un­sta­ble” for sher­iff ’s deputies to go door-to-door look­ing for sur­vivors.

Though it was well-known as a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity, the town was also home to about 12,000 fam­i­lies. It was a place of rolling hills dot­ted with tidy homes, dropped in the mid­dle of a thick for­est of pine and oak trees.

Par­adise Vice Mayor Greg Bolin said that early re­ports from fire of­fi­cials sug­gested that 80 per­cent to 90 per­cent of the town had burned. Bolin, who lost his home, said: “The town is gone.”

Fire­fight­ers’ as­sault on the Camp Fire has, so far, pre­vented it from reach­ing Chico, home to about 90,000 peo­ple west of Par­adise. Of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that 15,000 homes and other build­ings are still in the path of the fast-mov­ing blaze.

“The mag­ni­tude of the de­struc­tion in Par­adise and a year ago in Santa Rosa is such that it will take many years to re­cover,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Repub­li­can law­maker who rep­re­sents Par­adise and toured the de­struc­tion Fri­day. “The sad­ness is that be­yond all that, a lot of peo­ple who lost their homes will not be able to af­ford to re­turn once the im­prove­ments are com­pleted be­cause the cost of new hous­ing just keeps get­ting higher and higher.”

Res­i­dents such as Howard Cole, who sought shel­ter at a con­verted church in Oroville, knew they were in fire coun­try and said the evac­u­a­tions are not un­ex­pected.

“This is our fourth evac­u­a­tion in 10 years,” Cole said. “The first cou­ple were chaos. It’s get­ting bet­ter.”

NEAL WA­TERS/ZUMA PRESS

Chico Fire and Res­cue Cap­tain John Kelso jokes with Par­adise Skilled Nurs­ing home res­i­dent Kather­ine Schaf­fer as she waits to be evac­u­ated on Thurs­day from the fires in Par­adise.

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