Camp Fire over­takes flee­ing res­i­dents, killing nine, and de­stroys most of Par­adise

‘I had no idea it could be that fast,’ sur­vivor of blaze says

The Modesto Bee - - Front Page - BY TONY BIZ­JAK, ALEXAN­DRA YOON-HENDRICKS, RYAN SA­BALOW AND MOLLY SUL­LI­VAN tbiz­jak@sacbee.com

Af­ter a night of chaos and fear, the once-rag­ing Camp Fire in Butte County set­tled down Fri­day as winds calmed.

But the new day brought grue­some dis­cov­er­ies.

Five as yet uniden­ti­fied fire vic­tims were found burned in the husks of their cars near Edge­wood Lane, a nar­row dead­end street in Par­adise. Cars there were wrapped in law en­force­ment crime scene tape Fri­day, with their wheels melted into the as­phalt and sag­ging elec­tri­cal wires hang­ing over­head.

All down the one-mile length of Edge­wood, former homes and trail­ers smol­dered in ru­ins.

The res­i­dents ap­par­ently were trapped or over­taken by the speed­ing fire while try­ing to evac­u­ate dur­ing a fran­tic few hours Thurs­day night when roads be­came choked and some res­i­dents aban­doned grid­locked cars to flee on foot.

“The pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that the vic­tims were lo­cated in ve­hi­cles that were over­come by the Camp Fire,” the sher­iff said in a state­ment. “Due to the burn in­juries, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion could not be im­me­di­ately made.“

One res­i­dent of the street, who barely es­caped, said her fam­ily’s car and those of neigh-

bors’ were jammed “like sit­ting ducks” as the fire bore down through the black night.

Sa­van­nah Rauscher said she got a re­verse 911 call or­der­ing her to evac­u­ate her Edge­wood Lane home at 8:30 a.m. Out­side, em­bers and dust were al­ready fly­ing.

“We saw a wall of fire,” she said. “Trees were glow­ing 50 yards away and it was prob­a­bly mov­ing like 10 yards ev­ery cou­ple min­utes. … It was mov­ing so quickly and there’s cars as far as I can see. I had no idea it could be that fast.”

Feel­ing the heat from the flames, Rauscher’s hus­band pulled out of the line of cars, cut­ting into what would have been the on­com­ing traf­fic lane. “I thought, ‘We’re gonna die,’ and my hus­band said, ‘No, we’re not go­ing to die like this.’ ”

She rolled the win­dow down, wav­ing and yelling, prompt­ing other cars to fol­low suit. “When we got to Pear­son (Road), no­body had any clue, it’s right there, it’s com­ing like a freight train.”

On Fri­day, she checked satel­lite im­ages of the neigh­bor­hood and saw “a ball of fire” where their house once was.

Four more deaths were con­firmed in Par­adise on Fri­day af­ter­noon by the Butte County Sher­iff’s Of­fice. A spokes­woman said she had no im­me­di­ate de­tails about those fa­tal­i­ties. Two fire­fight­ers were re­ported in­jured as well, and first re­spon­ders were search­ing for more vic­tims.

The depart­ment had re­ceived 35 miss­ing per­sons re­ports as well as of Fri­day evening, spokes­woman Megan McMann said.

An es­ti­mated 80 per­cent of the town of Par­adise was gone, wiped out by flames in one night, the town mayor said.

Fire of­fi­cials have not dis­closed a cause. How­ever, PG&E sub­mit­ted a re­port Thurs­day to the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion about an out­age at a 115-kilo­volt line on Pulga Road in Butte County at 6:15 a.m. that day, and noted that the site was near the Camp Fire.

In a pub­lic state­ment, PG&E wrote: “The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been de­ter­mined. PG&E has pro­vided an ini­tial elec­tric in­ci­dent re­port to the (PUC). The in­for­ma­tion pro­vided in this re­port is pre­lim­i­nary and PG&E will fully co­op­er­ate with any in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

The fire, which be­gan about 6:30 a.m. Thurs­day, cut a large swath through the cen­ter of Par­adise and nearby Ma­galia on Thurs­day night and early Fri­day be­fore mak­ing a brief run to­ward Chico.

Fire of­fi­cials said the lat­est count of 6,713 struc­tures de­stroyed vaulted the blaze to first on the state’s list of most de­struc­tive fires. Be­fore this fire, the most de­struc­tive fire was the Tubbs Fire, which burned more than 2,600 build­ings in Sonoma, Napa and Lake coun­ties in 2017, many of them in the city of Santa Rosa.

Par­adise Mayor Jody Jones es­ti­mated “80 to 90 per­cent of the homes are gone.” She said most of the busi­nesses on the town’s com­mer­cial cor­ri­dors were also de­stroyed. Two of the three gro­cery stores burned to the ground.

Asked if she ex­pected the death toll to rise, Jones said, “I think we have to be pre­pared for that. There were peo­ple who re­fused to leave.”

The six re­ported deaths put the Camp Fire among the 20 dead­li­est fires in mod­ern Cal­i­for­nia his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire. The worst was the Grif­fith Fire in Los An­ge­les in 1933, when 29 died.

As of Fri­day morn­ing, the fire had con­sumed 70,000 acres and re­mained largely un­con­trolled.

The blaze con­tin­ued to burn in the Jarbo Gap area Fri­day. Cal­trans shut down High­way 99 south of Chico and north of the junc­tion with High­way 149. But Cal Fire of­fi­cials said dwin­dling winds slowed the fire’s move­ment and al­lowed fire­fight­ers a chance to es­tab­lish fire lines and make as­saults.

“Fire­fight­ers are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the break in the wind to ag­gres­sively go af­ter the fire,” Cal Fire spokes­woman Ch­eryl Bu­li­avac said.

Wind speeds are ex­pected to re­main low through Satur­day evening, but Na­tional Weather Ser­vice of­fi­cials say they could kick up again Satur­day night and con­tinue through Mon­day, with gusts up to 30 mph, prompt­ing the agency to is­sue a fire weather watch.

While Fri­day was largely calm, res­i­dents of Par­adise de­scribed Thurs­day evening as some­thing akin to hell on Earth. Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, Cal­i­for­nia Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices direc­tor, on scene Fri­day, ex­pressed awe at the dev­as­ta­tion.

“The mag­ni­tude of the de­struc­tion we’re see­ing is re­ally un­be­liev­able and heart­break­ing,” Ghi­lar­ducci said.

The fire torched homes and busi­nesses and burned down the Par­adise wel­come sign.

Alphonse Sperske was an­other of the lucky Edge­wood res­i­dents to es­cape at the last minute.

His daugh­ter, Ann Sperske, a Martinez res­i­dent, said her fa­ther lived at a se­nior com­mu­nity mo­bile home park near the only en­trance and exit to Edge­wood Lane, off of Pear­son Road.

By the time he left his house by car, the house across the street was al­ready on fire.

“There was no other way out, there’s no back road,” Sperske said. “He barely made it out.”

At the Oroville evac­u­a­tion cen­ter on Fri­day, Gaynell McP­hear­son, 79, there with his wife, Carol, and two dogs, said he wasn’t sure about the fate of the house he had built on a ridge to watch the sun rise and set.

“The struc­ture that I built may not be there, buy my home is still there,” he said. “My home is still there.”

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA hamezcua@sacbee.com

At least five peo­ple died on Pear­son Road, trapped in their cars while the Camp Fire de­scended on them. The charred re­mains of ve­hi­cles formed a ghostly image Fri­day. One res­i­dent who sur­vived said the ve­hi­cles were jammed in traf­fic “like sit­ting ducks.”

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