Wild­fire leaves lit­tle for those it spared

Cus­tomers, jobs gone for those un­touched by Camp Fire

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Peter Fim­rite and Sarah Ra­vani

MA­GALIA, Butte County — The red and green ta­bles and chairs out­side Jaki’s Hill­top Cafe were brand-new. The restau­rant, known for its bis­cuits and gravy, and stuffed French toast, had a fresh coat of beige and brown paint just in time for its re­open­ing.

Just 15 months ear­lier, the cafe was de­stroyed by a kitchen fire that ig­nited af­ter a car show and bar­be­cue. It re­opened in Oc­to­ber, ex­actly one month be­fore the dead­li­est and most de­struc­tive wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory tore through the area.

The Camp Fire skipped or cir­cled around some homes and busi­nesses. It left a store­front here and a house there, as it gob­bled en­tire neigh­bor­hoods on its un­prece­dented path of de­struc­tion through Butte County.

Mirac­u­lously, it missed Jaki’s Hill­top Cafe. But it doesn’t mat­ter. There are no cus­tomers to serve.

The luck of the draw isn’t very sooth­ing to the prop­erty own­ers who were spared by the capri­cious flames. With ev­ery­thing around them gone and most com­merce shut down, their fu­tures are, for the most part, in just as much doubt as those of the peo­ple who lost ev­ery­thing.

“This is an apoc­a­lypse,” said Jaki Snead, the 60-year-old owner of the Hill­top, not­ing that the hair and nail sa­lons next to her restau­rant had burned to the ground.

“It’s been two tragedies re­ally close to one an­other,” she added.

Her cafe didn’t have a fleck of ash on it, not even on the pa­per­back books piled on a pink book­shelf next to the front door, but she knew that the fu­ture of her pop­u­lar cafe and hang­out spot was bleak.

The fire de­stroyed 528 busi­nesses and 13,972 homes in the Sierra foothills towns of Par­adise, its neigh­bor Ma­galia and sev­eral other wooded com­mu­ni­ties. The bad news got worse last week when the pound­ing rain caused flood­ing in the burn zone, forc­ing more evac­u­a­tions. Al­though Snead’s busi­ness sur­vived, her house 2 miles away was one of the ca­su­al­ties.

“I don’t have a home any­more. I don’t know if I’ll re­open (the restau­rant),” she said. “This is re­ally hard.”

It could take years to re­build Par­adise, Ma­galia and the other small com­mu­ni­ties that were dev­as­tated by the fire. With­out homes, there isn’t much busi­ness, and with­out busi­ness, there isn’t much work. Many of the el­derly prop­erty own­ers are ex­pected to move away, and no­body knows who will take their place or what kind of com­mu­nity will be built.

Karpathia Herzbrun feels for­tu­nate that the fire some­how looped around her Ma­galia neigh­bor­hood, but said she feels like she is stranded on an un­burned is­land. Be­cause Par­adise, just down the road, is still closed to traf­fic, she has to drive 1½ hours on a wind­ing moun­tain road just to get food. With snow, that route will soon be im­pass­able, she said.

“We needed Par­adise, but Par­adise is gone,” said Herzbrun, who had to evac­u­ate 25 an­i­mals, in­clud­ing two dogs, two rab­bits, a horse and a goat from her Wood­ward Drive home the day of the fire. “It’s like you’re in a wild an­i­mal park, and you’re the wild an­i­mal . ... It’s too much. It’s an over­load of feel­ings.”

Out­side their two-story cedar home, along Cen­ter­ville Road in a long val­ley bi­sected by Butte Creek, Doug and Gayle Edgar hugged each other last week, thank­ful that a fire crew saved the house — com­plete with swim­ming pool and tiki bar — that he built 25 years ago.

They couldn’t save his work­shop, which was full of mem­o­ra­bilia and a pris­tine Har­leyDavid­son mo­tor­cy­cle, but the Edgars aren’t about to com­plain. The oc­to­ge­nar­ian cou­ple next door lost ev­ery­thing.

“It wouldn’t even be fair if I com­plained,” said Doug, 58.

But the Edgars’ lives have been thrown into tur­moil in other ways. Of­fices and part of the Feather River Hos­pi­tal, where they both worked, were dam­aged or de­stroyed, nearly tak­ing out sev­eral of their co-work­ers as they scram­bled to evac­u­ate pa­tients. Ad­min­is­tra­tors said re­cently that the dam­aged hos­pi­tal build­ings in Par­adise, where as many as 1,000 peo­ple were em­ployed, may not re­open.

“It’s cer­tainly life-chang­ing,” said Gayle, 45, who wept as she re­counted how her neigh­bors and co-work­ers lost their

homes and liveli­hoods. “It’s what every­body around us lost. Our co-work­ers at the hos­pi­tal were call­ing their loved ones and say­ing good­bye. They watched cars burn up and had to run for their lives.” The Camp Fire, which was con­tained last Sun­day af­ter burn­ing 153,336 acres in 17 days, killed at least 88 peo­ple. Of­fi­cials warn that the death toll could still rise.

Fire of­fi­cials ex­pect to al­low many evac­u­ated res­i­dents to re­turn to fire-rav­aged ar­eas in the next cou­ple of weeks, and Butte County is of­fer­ing those who lost homes or loved ones ser­vices, in­clud­ing grief coun­sel­ing, child care, and tax and dis­as­ter re­lief.

As the burned ar­eas are re­opened, prop­erty own­ers will be pro­vided with re-en­try kits with in­for­ma­tion about de­bris re­moval, safety and health, said Kelly Hub­bard, a spokes­woman for the Butte County mu­tual aid and re­cov­ery sys­tem. She said the packet will in­clude full-body HazMat­style suits, rub­ber gloves and N95 masks.

But the emer­gency is such that the peo­ple whose homes were spared must find their own way through the grief and con­fu­sion, at least for now, Hub­bard said.

“We don't have the re­sources to be track­ing those who are OK,” Hub­bard said. “The fo­cus right now is on search and re­cov­ery.”

What’s left for peo­ple like Shane Smith, whose Sun­ny­side Lane home sur­vived vir­tu­ally un­scathed, is survivor’s guilt. At least four of his neigh­bor’s homes were de­stroyed, while not even the lemon tree in his front yard suf­fered dam­age.

“I feel grat­i­tude that I have a home, but all of a sud­den, out of nowhere, I feel sad and get teary-eyed,” said Smith, a 41year-old chi­ro­prac­tor who, with his wife and three chil­dren — one with Down syn­drome — moved in with an­other fam­ily in Chico while the elec­tric­ity to the fam­ily home was shut off and work­ers cleared the smoke from inside the house.

“My town is gone. All my friends’ homes are gone,” Smith said. “I feel frus­trated be­cause I have a home, and yet I can’t help other peo­ple.”

Mean­while, lo­cal real es­tate agents are pack­ing up be­cause there is noth­ing to sell.

It means busi­nesses like Jaki’s Hill­top Cafe is in limbo. The cafe was a com­mu­nity hub, a place for peo­ple to hang out, but the em­ploy­ees can’t af­ford to wait around for a new town to be built out of the cin­ders.

“I don’t have a plan for any­thing right now,” said Susie LaDue, a 20-year cafe em­ployee who, with­out work, can’t af­ford the $600 in rent she pays for her­self and her 17-year-old daugh­ter. “I am just liv­ing day by day.”

Pat Bron­son, 66, a shift man­ager at the cafe, said she has no choice but to leave town.

“There’s no­body that is go­ing to re­build in Par­adise right this minute,” Bron­son said. “It’s never go­ing to be the same as be­fore. Ev­ery­one has to start a new nor­mal.”

Bob Smal­ley, who owns Smal­ley Gen­eral Con­tract­ing, in Par­adise, has turned his busi­ness into a kind of half­way house for em­ploy­ees who lost their homes. Smal­ley, whose Ma­galia home was de­stroyed, lives in a room in the build­ing and eight of his em­ploy­ees live in campers and recre­ational ve­hi­cles in the park­ing lot.

“I'm go­ing to say (this fire) is go­ing to be good for my busi­ness,” Smal­ley said. “It’s bit­ter­sweet be­cause I lost my house and all my fore­men lost their houses too, and that’s af­fect­ing us to some de­gree, but we're still for­tu­nate to be able to con­duct busi­ness.”

Pho­tos by Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Brook Madi­son plays with her son, Justin, in a ho­tel, where they moved af­ter they lost their home in the Camp Fire.

Jaki Snead lost her home in the Camp Fire. Her busi­ness, Jaki’s Hill­top Cafe in Ma­galia, was spared, but there are no cus­tomers.

Gayle and Doug Edgar’s home sur­vived the Camp Fire, but the Feather River Hos­pi­tal in Par­adise where they both worked was de­stroyed and may not re­open.

Pho­tos by Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Shane Smith, whose home sur­vived the Camp Fire vir­tu­ally un­scathed, suf­fers from survivor’s guilt and says, “My town is gone. All my friends’ homes are gone.”

Karpathia Herzbrun’s home sur­vived the Camp Fire in Ma­galia, but now she has to drive 1½ hours on a moun­tain road to get food.

Bob Smal­ley of Smal­ley Gen­eral Con­tract­ing lost his home in the Camp Fire, but his of­fices were spared. He and sev­eral of his em­ploy­ees now live there.

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