Camp fire’s cause may take weeks to de­ter­mine

Los Angeles Times - - THE NA­TION - paige.stjohn@la­times.com louis.sa­h­a­gun @la­times.com an­drea.castillo @la­times.com taryn.luna@la­times.com anna.phillips@la­times.com

sat un­der a dark canopy of ash and smoke.

Homes and busi­nesses had been re­duced to piles of twisted metal. Tall pine trees and util­ity poles smol­dered. Ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Teach­ers Assn., at least five of the nine schools in Par­adise were de­stroyed, in­clud­ing Par­adise El­e­men­tary School.

Cars aban­doned by flee­ing mo­torists who found them­selves un­able to es­cape lay crum­pled in the road­ways, their tires melted.

The bod­ies of five peo­ple were dis­cov­ered on Edge­wood Lane in ve­hi­cles over­taken by the fire. Oth­ers were found out­side their cars and homes. Butte County Sher­iff Kory L. Honea said they could not im­me­di­ately be iden­ti­fied be­cause they were burned so badly.

“There were peo­ple who weren’t able to get out,” Honea said, speak­ing from a makeshift com­mand post at Butte Col­lege, which had been closed Thurs­day. As he talked, flakes of white ash

fell on his uni­form as strong winds con­tin­ued to sweep across the nearby burn­ing ridges.

Au­thor­i­ties are re­cov­er­ing bod­ies “with as much dig­nity as we can af­ford them,” he said.

It could be weeks be­fore of­fi­cials de­ter­mine the cause of the fire, named be­cause it be­gan near Camp Creek Road in Butte County. On Fri­day, Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. no­ti­fied state reg­u­la­tors that one of its high-volt­age power lines lo­cated near where the fire be­gan had mal­func­tioned shortly be­fore the first flames were re­ported on Thurs­day morn­ing.

Fu­eled by strong north­east winds and a parched land­scape, the fire grew to 90,000 acres by Fri­day evening.

It forced more than 50,000 peo­ple in Par­adise and sur­round­ing towns to evac­u­ate. Many of them spilled onto a four-lane road called Sky­way — the main evac­u­a­tion route out of Par­adise — that quickly be­came jammed. Res­i­dents de­scribed

sit­ting in traf­fic as flames on both sides of the road reached for their cars.

Faced with wors­en­ing grid­lock, fire of­fi­cials said, they made a cru­cial de­ci­sion to fo­cus their en­ergy on res­cu­ing peo­ple stranded on the road, un­able to move, rather than try to beat back the grow­ing in­ferno.

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, it was only 5% con­tained.

The Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion said that a few thou­sand fire­fight­ers had been dis­patched to bat­tle the blaze. At least three had been in­jured.

Fire­fight­ers’ as­sault on the Camp fire has, so far, pre­vented it from reach­ing Chico, home to about 90,000 peo­ple, west of Par­adise.

Parts of Par­adise were still burn­ing Fri­day af­ter­noon as law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties and util­ity com­pany work­ers be­gan to sur­vey the dam­age. Honea said con­di­tions were too “un­sta­ble” for sher­iff ’s deputies to go door-to-door look­ing for sur­vivors.

Though it was well­known

as a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity, the town was also home to about 12,000 fam­i­lies.

Par­adise Vice Mayor Greg Bolin said early re­ports from fire of­fi­cials sug­gested that 80 to 90% of the town had burned. Bolin, who lost his home, said: “The town is gone.”

“The mag­ni­tude of the destruc­tion in Par­adise and a year ago in Santa Rosa is such that it will take many years to re­cover,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Repub­li­can who rep­re­sents Par­adise and toured the destruc­tion Fri­day.

As towns emp­tied and evac­u­a­tion cen­ters filled, many res­i­dents’ fo­cus shifted from se­cur­ing their own safety to search­ing for fam­ily mem­bers and friends.

Teresa Roberts spent the day fran­ti­cally try­ing to reach her mother, Mar­i­lyn Allen, 69, and grand­fa­ther, Richard Tor­res, 85, whose home of 13 years she feared was lost. Nei­ther had reg­is­tered them­selves as safe on the Red Cross web­site. Her mother’s cell­phone rang and

rang. She didn’t re­spond to emails.

“I’m just ter­ri­fied,” said Roberts. “Did they get out? That’s all I want to know.”

This part of Butte County is no stranger to wild­fires. Ten years ago, a blaze swept through Par­adise, de­stroy­ing dozens of struc­tures and forc­ing chaotic evac­u­a­tions; the re­sult­ing panic was so alarm­ing, an­gry res­i­dents showed up for months at com­mu­nity meet­ings de­mand­ing change.

“There had been no plan­ning,” said Peggy Mus­grave, 85, who es­caped that fire only to find her­self in grid­lock again Thurs­day, joined once more by thou­sands of Par­adise res­i­dents flee­ing an­other rag­ing fire.

But this time, Mus­grave said, she felt there was a mea­sure of con­trol. Peo­ple had been mailed in­struc­tions on what to do: what to pack, what routes to take out of town and a re­minder to plan for their pets.

When she learned through word of mouth of the en­croach­ing Camp fire, she went to her closet for her

box of prized pho­to­graphs and records, and to an­other for her jewelry. Then she left.

Amid the scenes of dev­as­ta­tion and loss were sto­ries of gen­eros­ity.

Far­shad Azad, a taek­wondo grand­mas­ter, turned his stu­dio in Chico into a shel­ter for evac­uees and their pets. By Fri­day af­ter­noon, about 30 peo­ple had moved in.

Among his guests was a woman who had lost her home but man­aged to res­cue 11 cats from her neigh­bor­hood.

“Peo­ple are help­ing each other out right now, and that’s how it should be,” Azad said. “We should be in a place where we ex­er­cise com­pas­sion and kind­ness and hu­man­ity. It’s just too bad that stuff like that has to come out of dis­as­ters and tragedies.”

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