Camp Fire becomes one of state’s worst blazes
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.”
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.