‘There were peo­ple who weren’t able to get out’

Ev­ery­one in the dev­as­tated Butte County town owns a big piece of the pain

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paige St. John, Louis Sa­h­a­gun, An­drea Castillo, Taryn Luna and Anna M. Phillips

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — 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 in one of the worst fire sea­sons on record.

Of­fi­cials said at least nine peo­ple died and more than 6,700 homes and com­mer­cial build­ings were lost — mak­ing it the most de­struc­tive fire to prop­erty in state his­tory.

On Fri­day, a day af­ter the Camp fire broke out, this for­merly thriv­ing com­mu­nity

Bev­erly Meintsma is 73 years old. She has been mar­ried for more than 50 years.

Two months ago, she fell, broke her leg, and needed surgery. Be­fore she left her home in Par­adise for a re­hab cen­ter in Chico, she placed her wed­ding ring in her jewelry box for safe­keep­ing.

On Thurs­day, her long­time home burned to the ground in the fast-mov­ing Camp fire, which has al­ready claimed an un­known num­ber of lives and 70,000 acres and count­ing. Me­in­stma will be re­leased from Chico Creek Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in 30 days. She has no place to go, noth­ing left.

Not even her wed­ding ring.

“She is trau­ma­tized and try­ing to fig­ure out what she’s go­ing to do,” said Heidi Pe­den, Meintsma’s daugh­ter. “She has no home. She has noth­ing but the clothes on her back .... She hopes she can find her ring in the rub­ble.”

Pe­den tells her mother’s story in a breath­less rush, stop­ping only to choke back tears. But it’s not just her mother’s story of grief and loss that tum­bles out on Fri­day morn­ing. It be­longs to her fa­ther, who was evac­u­ated on Thurs­day from the nurs­ing home where he has lived since Alzheimer’s dis­ease bore down. His beloved

town is mostly gone. So is his mem­ory of it.

It be­longs to Pe­den her­self, born in Feather River Hos­pi­tal 43 years ago and now liv­ing in Tuc­son, and to her friends in the Par­adise High Class of ’93. Ev­ery­one in the small Butte County town owns a big piece of the pain, and so do those who loved it and left.

“Ev­ery­one I know has lost their homes,” Pe­den says. “It’s my beloved child­hood home, like May­berry. It was this beau­ti­ful old min­ing town .... It’s been there since

the Gold Rush. We had a Gold Nugget Day pa­rade ev­ery year. It’s a world unto it­self, in this moun­tain par­adise.” But. “We all knew as chil­dren the threat of fire,” she said.

And then she launches into her best friend’s story, a near-death tale of dev­as­ta­tion, a nor­mal day that turned into “a hor­ror movie.”

Casey Rickards Daw­son is a nurse at Feather River Hos­pi­tal. She clocked in as usual at 6:10 a.m. on Thurs­day. Ten min­utes later, the

fire was bear­ing down and the hos­pi­tal staff had to evac­u­ate.

Pe­den sounds nearly as shaken as Daw­son must have been as she strug­gled to­ward safety Thurs­day. The friends spoke Fri­day morn­ing. The pain is in­fec­tious. This is how Pe­den tells the nurse’s aw­ful tale, which be­gan as em­bers flew around the en­dan­gered hos­pi­tal.

“All the pa­tients were put in the park­ing lot on the pave­ment lined up in gur­neys, chil­dren, ev­ery­one, try­ing to get out,” Pe­den re­counts.

She pauses. “I’m get­ting chills just think­ing about it.

“What hap­pened next” she said, “is truly hor­rific.

“Casey was told, ‘Help this woman and her baby get out of here.’ The woman and baby got in an­other car. Ev­ery­one was like, ‘Casey, get out of here.’ She took a left on Pence, the epi­cen­ter….

“And all she could see were flames on all sides. She drove through it. She got to Fast-N-Easy and saw a firetruck. She’s think­ing she’s go­ing to die ev­ery minute. She pulled into Fast-N-Easy, a min­i­mart in the for­est. My mom’s house is next to it. Casey wit­nessed my whole neigh­bor­hood burn­ing up.”

But there was wa­ter at the mar­ket, a fire hy­drant, other cars and fire­fight­ers. They told her to stay at the mar­ket with them. They sprayed her car down as she shel­tered in­side, pray­ing. She stayed there for two hours.

The fire­fight­ers fi­nally told Daw­son to head to the Kmart on Clark Road. When she got there, she found hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered, won­der­ing whether they would die. Pe­den stresses this point, over and over.

“Casey said, ‘Thank God this is pave­ment. Maybe we’re go­ing to be safe,’ ” Pe­den re­counted. “She had to be there un­til 4:30 or 5 p.m. She thought she’d die. She found a doc­tor who worked

at the hos­pi­tal. She needed to do some­thing. She was feed­ing Cheez-Its to chil­dren and check­ing on pa­tients from the hos­pi­tal.

“Those peo­ple were all be­liev­ing they were gonna die. Au­thor­i­ties said, ‘We’re go­ing to es­cort you out.’ The car­a­van of all th­ese peo­ple took a left down Clark Road. Tele­phone poles were on fire above them. They thought any minute th­ese poles would come down.

“Casey wit­nessed cars be­ing en­gulfed. She had an eerie, eerie feel­ing pass­ing the Taco Bell, the only thing stand­ing. It’s gone now,” Pende con­tin­ued. “She thought she was go­ing to die. Ev­ery­one did.

“They got down to state High­way 70 and she got to the blue sky. Be­hind her was this dark, dark, dark black sky. She didn’t know how she got out alive. She was shak­ing all morn­ing. She didn’t sleep. We talked. I said, ‘You need to get your im­por­tant doc­u­ments, get them ready.’ ”

Daw­son lives in Chico, about 15 miles from Par­adise. And parts of Chico have been un­der evac­u­a­tion or­ders. Pe­den said her friend took a shower Fri­day morn­ing, try­ing to scrub away the trauma of the last 24 hours.

But her hair still smells like smoke.

Ma­son Trinca For The Times

RUB­BLE en­cases a ve­hi­cle at an in­cin­er­ated house in Par­adise, Calif., where the Camp fire has de­stroyed more than 6,700 homes and com­mer­cial build­ings.

Justin Sul­li­van Getty Images

BURNED-OUT ve­hi­cles line a road in Par­adise, a Sierra Ne­vada foothills com­mu­nity of 27,000 peo­ple. Thou­sands f led the fast-mov­ing blaze by car and on foot.

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