Par­adise: Most of town is lost af­ter fire rav­ages the area

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By An­nie Sci­acca and Lisa M. Krieger Staff writ­ers

PAR­ADISE >> Ru­ral res­i­dents are mourn­ing their Par­adise lost, a close-knit com­mu­nity where many el­ders and work­ing poor sought sanc­tu­ary from Cal­i­for­nia’s in­creas­ing crowds, costs and chaos.

“The most beau­ti­ful place in the world,” said 67-year-old Daniel Woida, a Viet­nam War vet­eran, who watched 50 mph winds spin, ig­nite and con­sume his home while he was atop a nearby ridge, fight­ing to pro­tect a neigh­bor’s house. With­out a car, he walked 3 miles to safety.

When Ann Bal­lan­tyne, 74, came from San Jose, “We found a qual­ity of life here. I had four chick­ens — raised them from chicks. I couldn’t take the Bay Area’s traf-

fic. I couldn’t take the sirens. But now there’s just un­cer­tainty.”

Only a charred shell is left of Par­adise after the Camp fire ig­nited near Pulga, a for­mer rail­road town-turned-retreat cen­ter on the edge of Plumas Na­tional For­est, and raced through the com­mu­ni­ties of Con­cow, Ma­galia and Par­adise, a town of 27,000. At least nine peo­ple are dead, and 6,453 homes and 260 com­mer­cial build­ings are gone.

The once-wel­com­ing “Sky­way” route that linked the Sierra foothills towns to Chico, along a rocky ridgetop be­tween Feather River Canyon and Butte Creek, is so choked in smoke that only skele­tons of pine trees are vis­i­ble.

Cars — many of them packed with be­long­ings, now just burned shells — lit­ter the roads, aban­doned by peo­ple who fled with law en­force­ment, fire crews, fam­ily or friends to save their lives.

The lo­cal McDon­ald’s is gone. So is the Safe­way, Ace Hard­ware and the AM/ PM gas sta­tion where res­i­dents grabbed cof­fee and chat­ted on their way to jobs in Chico. Restau­rants and ho­tels also burned to the ground, leav­ing only frag­ments and, in some cases, a sign in­di­cat­ing what had been.

“It’s just a lit­tle foothills town,” said ge­og­ra­pher Jac­que­lyn Chase of Cal State Chico, “and has been a pri­mary des­ti­na­tion for peo­ple who are re­tired.” More than one-quar­ter of res­i­dents are over the age of 65. The me­dian age is 50.

The re­gion at­tracted early gold min­ers and log­gers whose for­tunes rose and fell along with its ore and forests. It is ru­mored to have been named when an early en­tre­pre­neur ar­rived at his sawmill on a sum­mer day in 1864, after a hot and dusty ride from the Sacra­mento Val­ley, and re­port­edly ex­claimed “Boys, this is par­adise.”

After the pop­u­la­tion in Par­adise swelled to over 20,000 from 5,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, its res­i­dents de­cided to in­cor­po­rate in 1979. But its growth plateaued; there are few lo­cal jobs to keep young peo­ple there. Many res­i­dents are on fixed in­comes, such as So­cial Se­cu­rity and vet­er­ans or dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits.

“Hous­ing is cheap there. There are a lot of trailer parks, and some poverty,” Chase said. “It’s not on a route that’s on your way to a des­ti­na­tion, like Ta­hoe. It never re­ally blos­somed in that way.”

On the edge of Plumas Na­tional For­est, “They talked for years that some­day a fire would hap­pen, and it did,” she said.

The ter­rain is sim­i­lar to what burned in Shasta County’s Carr fire — foothills filled with shrubby veg­e­ta­tion mixed with pon­derosa and gray pines, with grasses that act like “flashy” fu­els, burn­ing fast when dry, said ecol­o­gist Eric Knapp of the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

As fires con­sumed the land­scape, there were few roads upon which the ru­ral res­i­dents had to es­cape, in a mad dash as the fire quickly closed in on them. Traf­fic backed up for hours on the few roads out of town, as peo­ple at­tempted to flee to Chico and else­where.

Even the fire sta­tion near Wagstaffe Road suc­cumbed, stand­ing Fri­day morn­ing as a burned-out shell. Gone too were most of the homes be­tween Sky­way and Pentz Road on the east­ern side of Par­adise.

Johnny Dykes, 62, and Tracy Bene­field, 58, pre­pared for 16 years to buy their house off of Sky­way. Sit­ting on al­most three acres, tucked back off the road about 150 feet, the prop­erty was their dream, they said — a “jewel.”

The first news re­ports they heard about the fire came hours after it had started around 6:30 a.m. Thurs­day. Ear­lier, they had heard trans­form­ers pop­ping and the sound of propane gas tanks ex­plod­ing at nearby homes, but they didn’t know the mag­ni­tude of what was com­ing.

Bene­field started mak­ing calls. Her seven chil­dren all live in Par­adise and nearby Ma­galia — both of which were be­ing evac­u­ated. She took off to round up her fam­ily, all of whom were safe, she said, while Dykes packed a truck full of their be­long­ings.

As he drove away that af­ter­noon, of­fi­cials sug­gested he leave his truck and evac­u­ate with them — fewer ve­hi­cles on the road would make it eas­ier to evac­u­ate. In­stead, he re­turned to the house to get his mo­tor­cy­cle and started down Sky­way, rid­ing on side­walks to get around traf­fic. He pulled over to a shop­ping cen­ter to wait out the fire in the hopes that he could re­turn home. But as he saw flames en­gulf nearby apart­ment build­ings and ap­proach a nearby Dutch Bros. cof­fee drive-thru, he knew he had to go.

He rode through walls of flame down Sky­way, try­ing to reach safety.

“I’ve never seen any­thing else like it,” he said. In fact, he re­ally couldn’t see any­thing. Smoke filled his eyes and flames were every­where. Al­most mirac­u­lously, he said, he made it through the bursts of fire to safety in Chico.

He and Bene­field spent the night at Neigh­bor­hood Church of Chico — a Red Cross evac­u­a­tion shel­ter — with their 15-year-old dog, a wolf-shep­herd mix. Now, they wait to learn the fate of their dream house, know­ing it likely did not es­cape the flames.

“If we have to start over,” Dykes said with a shrug and a smile, “we will.”

They won’t know for sure un­til the evac­u­a­tion or­der is lifted.

“But we’re alive,” Bene­field said.

Cathy Fal­lon waits as her son, Gabriel Fal­lon, sifts through the re­mains of her home in Par­adise on Fri­day. Fal­lon and her hus­band were able to save their 14 horses.

Daniel Woida holds a dog he res­cued out­side of a shel­ter at the Butte County Fair­grounds in Gri­d­ley on Fri­day. Many evac­uees of the deadly Camp Fire came to the shel­ter.

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