Par­adise, Cal­i­for­nia, lev­eled in less than a day

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION - BY PAUL ELIAS AND GIL­LIAN FLACCUS

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — The air thick with smoke from a fe­ro­cious wild­fire that was still burn­ing homes Satur­day, res­i­dents who stayed be­hind to try to save their prop­erty or who man­aged to get back to their neigh­bor­hoods in this North­ern Cal­i­for­nia town found cars in­cin­er­ated and homes re­duced to rub­ble.

Peo­ple sur­veyed the dam­age and strug­gled to cope with what they had lost. En­tire neigh­bor­hoods were lev­eled and the busi­ness dis­trict was de­stroyed by a blaze that threat­ened to ex­plode again with the same fury that largely in­cin­er­ated the foothill town.

Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea said Satur­day 14 ad­di­tional bod­ies were found. The death toll from the blaze stood at 25 late Satur­day night. He said an ad­di­tional search and res­cue team was be­ing brought in to search for re­mains.

The flames burned down more than 6,700 build­ings, al­most all of them homes, mak­ing it Cal­i­for­nia’s most de­struc­tive wild­fire since record-keep­ing be­gan. There were 35 peo­ple still miss­ing.

Sher­iff’s deputies re­cov­ered hu­man re­mains from at least five homes as they went house-to-house in Par­adise can­vass­ing for the miss­ing. It was un­clear if the re­mains were in ad­di­tion to the nine fa­tal­i­ties al­ready re­ported by the Butte County Sher­iff’s Of­fice.

More fire­fight­ers headed to the area Satur­day, with wind gusts of up to 50 mph ex­pected, rais­ing the risk of con­di­tions sim­i­lar to those when the fire started Thurs­day, said Alex Hoon with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. The blaze grew to 156 square miles, but crews made gains and it was par­tially con­tained, of­fi­cials said.

Peo­ple sidestepped metal that melted off cars and Jet-Skis and donned masks as they sur­veyed rav­aged neigh­bor­hoods de­spite an evac­u­a­tion or­der for all of Par­adise, a town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s. Some cried when they saw noth­ing was left.

Jan MacGre­gor, 81, got back to his small two-bed­room home in Par­adise with the help of his fire­fighter grand­son. He found his home lev­eled — a large metal safe and some pipe work from his sep­tic sys­tem the only rec­og­niz­able traces. The safe was punc­tured with bul­let holes from guns in­side that went off in the scorch­ing heat.

He has lived in Par­adise for nearly 80 years, mov­ing there in 1939 when he said the town had just 3,000 peo­ple and was nick­named Poverty Ridge. The fire was not a com­plete sur­prise, he said.

“We knew Par­adise was a prime tar­get for for­est fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ’em come right up to the city lim­its — oh yeah — but noth­ing like this,” he said.

MacGre­gor said he prob­a­bly would not re­build: “I have noth­ing here to go back to.”

Homes and other build­ings in Par­adise were still burn­ing, and fire crews were try­ing to ex­tin­guish those blazes, said Scott McLean, a cap­tain with the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. Of­fi­cials warned fire­fight­ers to wear their hel­mets and be care­ful of fall­ing trees.

Aban­doned, charred ve­hi­cles clut­tered the main thor­ough­fare, ev­i­dence of the pan­icked evac­u­a­tion as the wild­fire tore through Thurs­day. The dead were found mostly in­side their cars or out­side ve­hi­cles and homes.

Five of the dead pan­icked when they couldn’t es­cape by car be­cause their route was cut off by a wall of fire, said Gabriel Fal­lon, who rode out the blaze with his par­ents to care for the horses, cows and live­stock on their 10-acre farm in Par­adise.

The group turned the other way and dashed down the paved street un­til it turned into dirt and passed the Fal­lons’ farm, he said. One of the driv­ers stopped and asked Fal­lon if the di­rec­tion they were go­ing would lead them to safety. Fal­lon said he shook his head as the fire roared closer.

The mo­torists parked at the end of the road. On Satur­day, the charred shells of the five cars re­mained where they had been parked.

Fal­lon went back to his prop­erty, where he, and his par­ents and their an­i­mals weath­ered the fire with a gar­den hose. The fire con­sumed their home, but left the barn in­tact.

“I was scared as hell,” said Fal­lon, 42. “I didn’t know if I was go­ing to die.”

His mother, Cathy Fal­lon, said she tries not to think of what she lost when her house burned to the ground. Two of her dogs and nine cats died. She also lost her great-grand­mother’s man­dolin and end ta­ble.

“I just can’t think about it,” she said, begin­ning to cry. “The thing that hurts the most is that I lost my cats.”

Eli­nor “Jean­nie” Wil­liams, 86, was not among the nine vic­tims of the blaze but died as she waited to be air­lifted from an evac­u­ated hospi­tal where she was be­ing treated for a head in­jury.

She was dy­ing, and the fam­ily ex­pected to lose her in a few days, said her step­daugh­ter, Lisa. Still, her death has been hard on her 84-year-old fa­ther, Robert, who also may have lost his home, she said.

AP PHOTO/NOAH BERGER

Capt. Steve Mil­loso­vich car­ries a cage of cats while bat­tling the Camp Fire in Big Bend, Calif., on Fri­day. Mil­loso­vich said the cage fell from the bed of a pick-up truck as an evac­uee drove to safety.

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