Fire de­stroys Par­adise, killing at least nine

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY PAUL ELIAS AND GIL­LIAN FLACCUS

PAR­ADISE, CALIF.

No one is left in Par­adise. Aban­doned, charred ve­hi­cles clut­ter the main thor­ough­fare, ev­i­dence of the pan­icked evac­u­a­tion a day ear­lier as a wild­fire tore through the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity.

Nine peo­ple have been found dead. En­tire neigh­bor­hoods are lev­eled. The busi­ness district is de­stroyed. In one day, this Sierra Ne­vada foothill town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s was largely in­cin­er­ated by flames that moved so fast there was noth­ing fire­fight­ers could do.

The blaze that started Thurs­day out­side the hilly town of Par­adise has grown to 156 square miles and de­stroyed more than 6,700 build­ings, al­most all of them homes, mak­ing it Cal­i­for­nia’s most de­struc­tive wild­fire since record­keep­ing be­gan. But crews have made gains and the fire is par­tially con­tained, of­fi­cials said Satur­day.

The dead were found in­side their cars and out­side ve­hi­cles or homes af­ter a des­per­ate evac­u­a­tion that Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea called “the worst-case sce­nario.” Their iden­ti­ties were not yet known.

“It is what we feared for a long time,” Honea said, not­ing that there was no time to go door to door.

Fires were also burn­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where a blaze that tore through Mal­ibu man­sions and work­ing-class sub­ur­ban homes in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s hills and canyons killed two peo­ple and had more than dou­bled in size by Satur­day.

Pres­i­dent Donald

Trump is­sued an emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion pro­vid­ing fed­eral fund­ing for Butte, Ven­tura and Los An­ge­les coun­ties. He later threat­ened to with­hold fed­eral pay­ments to Cal­i­for­nia, claim­ing its for­est man­age­ment is “so poor.”

Trump tweeted Satur­day that “there is no rea­son for th­ese mas­sive, deadly and costly fires in Cal­i­for­nia.” Trump said “bil­lions of dol­lars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all be­cause of gross mis­man­age­ment of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed pay­ments!”

Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. re­ported to state reg­u­la­tors a prob­lem on an elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion line near the site of the fire min­utes be­fore it broke out. The com­pany had can­celed plans to cut off power to the area be­cause of high winds be­fore flames ig­nited.

The fire in Par­adise, about 180 miles north­east of San Fran­cisco, was still burn­ing out of con­trol.

A thick, yel­low haze hung in the air, giv­ing the ap­pear­ance of twi­light in the mid­dle of the day. Some of the “ma­jes­tic oaks” the town touts on its web­site still have fires burn­ing in their trunks. Thick wooden posts hold­ing up guardrails con­tin­ued to burn.

An evac­u­a­tion or­der Thurs­day set off a des­per­ate ex­o­dus, with fran­tic mo­torists get­ting stuck in grid­locked traf­fic. Many aban­doned their ve­hi­cles to flee on foot as the flames bore down on all sides.

“The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled-up win­dows,” said Rita Miller, who fled Par­adise with her mother, who is dis­abled.

The town, in a canyon be­tween two ridges, was a pop­u­lar re­tire­ment com- mu­nity, rais­ing con­cerns about miss­ing el­derly and im­mo­bile res­i­dents.

On the out­skirts of town, Pa­trick Knuth­son, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion res­i­dent, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there – his and a neigh­bor’s.

He and neigh­bors used a back­hoe to cre­ate a fire line, de­ter­mined not to lose his house again.

“I lost my home in 2008, and it’s some­thing you can’t re­ally de­scribe un­til you go through it,” said Knuth­son, who bat­tled flames 8 feet high or taller as strong winds whipped hot em­bers around him.

He worked so long in the flames and smoke that he needed to use oxy­gen Thurs­day night at his home, but he re­fused to leave. On Fri­day, Knuth­son was cov­ered from head to toe in black soot. His tiny town will never be the same, he said.

In the town’s cen­tral shop­ping area, there was lit­tle left but rub­ble.

St. Ni­co­las Church stands, a rare ex­cep­tion. The nearby New Life church is gone. An un­blem­ished Burger King sign rises above a pile of charred rub­ble. Only black­ened de­bris re­mains be­hind the Happy Gar­den Chi­nese Restau­rant sign. City Hall sur­vived. But the Moose Lodge and Cham­ber of Com­merce build­ings didn’t.

The town’s 100-bed hospi­tal is stand­ing, but two of its smaller build­ings, in­clud­ing an out­pa­tient clinic, are flat­tened.

On the out­skirts of Par­adise, Krystin Harvey lost her mo­bile home. She de­scribed a town rich with his­tor­i­cal charm, un­til a day ago.

“It was an old coun­try town. It had the old build­ings lined up along the walk­way,” she said. “Al­most all busi­nesses were lo­cally owned and in­cluded an as­sort­ment of an­tique shops, thrift stores, small restau­rants, two bars and lots of churches.”

Harvey won­dered if the town’s tra­di­tions would sur­vive. The town was fa­mous for the dis­cov­ery of a 54-pound gold nugget in the 1800s, which even­tu­ally prompted a fes­ti­val known as Gold Nugget Days. The high­light of the fes­ti­val is a pa­rade that fea­tures a Gold Nugget Queen.

RICH PEDRONCELLI AP

Hospi­tal beds and other equip­ment sit in a park­ing lot out­side the Feather River Hospi­tal on Fri­day in Par­adise, Calif. Pa­tients were evac­u­ated from the hospi­tal be­fore a mas­sive wild­fire swept through the area Thurs­day.

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