Firestorm lev­els Par­adise; 9 dead, more than 6,000 build­ings burned

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Kur­tis Alexan­der, Sarah Ra­vani and Erin All­day

PAR­ADISE, Butte County — The Camp Fire that dev­as­tated this bu­colic Butte County town has claimed the lives of at least nine peo­ple, grown to 90,000 acres and de­stroyed more build­ings than any other wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

By Fri­day evening, the fire had in­cin­er­ated 6,453 homes and 260 com­mer­cial build­ings in and around Par­adise. The blaze was only about 5 per­cent con­tained and was threat­en­ing an­other 15,000 struc­tures. Some 52,000 peo­ple re­mained evac­u­ated from var­i­ous towns. Au­thor­i­ties ex­pect the death toll to in­crease in the com­ing days.

Be­fore the Camp Fire, last year’s 36,807-acre Tubbs Fire was the most de­struc­tive wild­fire in state his­tory for de­stroy­ing 5,636 struc­tures in Napa and Sonoma coun­ties. Twenty-two peo­ple died in

that fire.

The nine peo­ple killed in the Camp Fire in­cluded four vic­tims found in ve­hi­cles burned by the blaze in the area of Edge­wood Lane, ac­cord­ing to the Butte County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice. An­other in­di­vid­ual was found out­side a ve­hi­cle there. Three bod­ies were found out­side homes and one was found in­side a home. None of the vic­tims has been iden­ti­fied.

In ad­di­tion to the lives lost, three fire­fight­ers have been in­jured.

It took less than 48 hours for the Camp Fire to hit his­toric lev­els of dev­as­ta­tion. The worst of the destruc­tion was in Par­adise, a town of 27,000 about 90 miles north of Sacra­mento that was over­whelmed by flames so quickly that many res­i­dents were barely able to grab car keys in their rush to es­cape.

It was only as the sun came up Fri­day that the full scope of the dam­age was ex­posed.

The burned walls of churches poked through ash. The black­ened skele­tons of gas sta­tions, fast-food restau­rants and super­mar­kets wob­bled amid strong winds. Block af­ter block, en­tire neigh­bor­hoods lay in ruin. Aban­doned cars, charred to their frames, lined the twolane roads in and out of town.

Be­neath the smoke-filled sky, sher­iff ’s deputies con­tin­ued to search for bod­ies amid the rub­ble while res­i­dents, scat­tered across the re­gion at evac­u­a­tion cen­ters or in the homes of fam­ily and friends, won­dered how they could pos­si­bly re­cover from such loss.

“I guess there won’t be much of my town left,” said Scott Lot­ter, a Par­adise Town Coun­cil mem­ber and for­mer mayor. “It’s too soon to tell how much we’ve lost.”

The cause of the fire, which started Thurs­day morn­ing, re­mains un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co. in­formed reg­u­la­tors Fri­day that a high-volt­age power line near the area ex­pe­ri­enced a prob­lem prior to the first flames.

Me­te­o­rol­o­gists were an­tic­i­pat­ing a lull in the ex­treme fire con­di­tions Fri­day night to Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon, but the winds were ex­pected to pick up again Sat­ur­day and con­tinue through the week­end.

The num­ber of peo­ple bat­tling the blaze in­creased to 3,223 by Fri­day evening, the 67 fire crews helped by 440 fire en­gines and 23 he­li­copters, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, or Cal Fire. Help was re­quested from nearby states, in­clud­ing Ore­gon, Ne­vada, New Mex­ico, Wy­oming and Wash­ing­ton.

“We are at a piv­otal mo­ment,” said Cal Fire Divi­sion Chief Todd Derum. “We are try­ing to take ad­van­tage of this mo­ment and make the most progress we can. But the red flag warn­ings will come. It will kick this fire up, start new fires, or a com­bi­na­tion of both.”

Dense smoke blan­keted much of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing the Bay Area, nearly 200 miles away, where air qual­ity was so bad that flights were can­celed at San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port and res­i­dents were ad­vised to stay in­doors.

The blaze “has been an ex­tremely chal­leng­ing fire and has re­sulted in sig­nif­i­cant and cat­a­strophic loss in that com­mu­nity,” said Mark Ghi­lar­ducci, di­rec­tor of the state Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices. “We are lit­er­ally in a statewide red flag weather. We are ba­si­cally look­ing at a very sig­nif­i­cant dan­ger­ous weather pat­tern through the rest of this week­end.”

Named the Camp Fire be­cause of its prox­im­ity to Camp Creek Road near High­way 70 in the Feather River Canyon, the in­ferno started at 6:30 a.m. Thurs­day and quickly bar­reled through Par­adise.

Many of the evac­uees had to leave with­out cell phones or iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and have had dif­fi­cul­ties re­con­nect­ing with friends and fam­ily. On so­cial me­dia, scores of peo­ple have posted pho­tos and last known ad­dresses of miss­ing rel­a­tives, many of them older or dis­abled in­di­vid­u­als who may have had a hard time evac­u­at­ing on their own.

Of­fi­cials did not not have any im­me­di­ate num­bers on how many peo­ple were un­ac­counted for, though the Butte County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice said it had 35 of­fi­cial miss­ing per­son re­ports. The Amer­i­can Red Cross is­sued an alert for res­i­dents to reg­is­ter as “safe and well” on its web­site.

“I’m pretty sure my home is burned to the ground,” said Deb­bie Teter, 53, who was at work at her real es­tate of­fice Thurs­day be­fore she hastily evac­u­ated to nearby Chico. “I’m pretty sure I won’t have a job ei­ther. My work­place is prob­a­bly gone and sell­ing prop­erty just won’t be hap­pen­ing.

“At my age,” she added, “I don’t want to have to start from scratch.”

The tree-lined houses and fa­mil­iar shops and busi­nesses that made Par­adise a draw for re­tirees and a mag­net for life­long res­i­dents were hardly rec­og­niz­able af­ter the flames tore through town. Most of the busi­ness dis­trict along Sky­way, the main drag, and the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods of sin­gle-fam­ily homes were burned.

Only the street-side signs of a Burger King and Jack in the Box re­vealed what the nearby piles of twisted steel and soot had once been. The First Assem­bly of God church and a Mor­mon church were charred. The Atria Par­adise re­tire­ment com­mu­nity was de­stroyed. A few mo­tels, a muf­fler shop and a used car lot were among the many other losses.

“The mag­ni­tude of the destruc­tion we are see­ing is re­ally un­be­liev­able and heart­break­ing,” Ghi­lar­ducci said. “Our hearts go out to every­body who’s been af­fected by this.”

Some res­i­dents al­ready were talk­ing about re­build­ing their tight-knit com­mu­nity. Oth­ers, though, were less con­fi­dent. They’d lost not only homes, but the places where they shopped, got a cup of cof­fee or met friends for lunch. Many peo­ple said they wouldn’t know how to be­gin to re­cover what they’d lost.

Donny Veteto, 43, had moved to Par­adise only a month ago. The home in which he’d rented a room burned down while he was at work in Chico. He was lucky — he hap­pened to be driv­ing his mo­tor home that day — but he lost ev­ery­thing else.

“I’d like to go back to Par­adise, but I don’t know when that will hap­pen,” Veteto said. “No­body can go back right now.”

Lot­ter, the for­mer mayor, evac­u­ated with his wife, daugh­ter and son-in-law, along with their pet rab­bit and two dogs. As he drove away with his fam­ily, flames were just 50 feet from City Hall, Lot­ter said. It took him nearly two hours to go a halfmile.

He learned on Fri­day that he’d lost his home to the fire, and found lit­tle con­so­la­tion in news that the movie the­ater he owns in town sur­vived. He said it was eas­ier to count the num­ber of homes and busi­nesses that were un­touched than those that were de­stroyed.

“If you have a per­fectly good busi­ness in the mid­dle of a desert, it re­ally doesn’t do you any good,” Lot­ter said.

Butte County schools were closed Fri­day and will re­main so through Nov. 23, ac­cord­ing to the county Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion. Of­fi­cials said they need time to as­sess the dam­age to school build­ings and de­ter­mine how best to sup­port fam­i­lies af­fected by the fire.

No­vem­ber is re­mark­ably late in the fire sea­son for such an in­tense blaze, fire of­fi­cials said. And at least two more mas­sive fires were threat­en­ing com­mu­ni­ties in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing one that forced evac­u­a­tion of the en­tire city of Mal­ibu. The late-sea­son wild­fires fu­eled by dry con­di­tions rep­re­sent Cal­i­for­nia’s new nor­mal, of­fi­cials said.

“Ev­ery day is fire sea­son some­where in Cal­i­for­nia,” Cal Fire Di­rec­tor Ken Pim­lott said.

Bob Schofield, 54, has lived in the Par­adise area for 26 years and spent 23 of those years as a vol­un­teer fire­fighter. Among the worst blazes he re­sponded to was the Hum­boldt Fire in 2008, which burned 23,000 acres in three days, he re­called.

The Camp Fire burned three times that in 24 hours.

“I don’t have much hope that the house is there,” Schofield said Fri­day from a friend’s house in Marysville, where his fam­ily was stay­ing af­ter evac­u­at­ing Par­adise. “If it was there it would be by the grace of God. It was right in the path of the fire.”

Schofield, a mu­sic teacher, was at the mid­dle school cam­pus Thurs­day morn­ing when the dis­trict an­nounced it was shut­ting down all Par­adise schools. He turned on a ra­dio to learn more about the fire and heard that his home was in an area be­ing evac­u­ated.

Stu­dents whose par­ents couldn’t get to them quickly enough were put on buses or in teach­ers’ own cars and taken to a shel­ter in Chico. Schofield called his wife and 15-year-old son, both at the high school, and told them to meet at their house on Wood­glen Drive. They were pack­ing when some­one knocked on their door and told them the fire was close.

They left with their three dogs and two rab­bits around 9:15 a.m., leav­ing be­hind keep­sakes such as pho­tos, school awards and Schofield’s col­lec­tion of nearly 300 fire en­gine repli­cas. The first one had been a gift from his grand­mother when he was 4.

“You can’t re­place the awards or the pho­tos, you can’t re­place all of that,” he said. “But we have in­sur­ance on ev­ery­thing else.”

Santa Rosa Fire Capt. Jack Thomas, who on Thurs­day led a strike team against the Camp Fire, couldn’t help but have flash­backs to last year’s deadly Wine Coun­try fires, which flat­tened en­tire neigh­bor­hoods.

“When I got here, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is ex­actly what we saw in Santa Rosa,’ ” he said. “We got churches down, a mo­bile home park burned and a re­tire­ment home half­way in­volved. It’s re­ally the same sit­u­a­tion.”

Chron­i­cle staff writ­ers Lizzie John­son and Kim­berly Vek­lerov

con­tributed to this re­port.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Heidi Bigelow (right) and daugh­ter Ma­rina Joy Bigelow, 18, who fled their home in Par­adise, are at a shel­ter in Chico.

Pho­tos by Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

The Sky­way, which runs through Par­adise, is heavy with haze from the Camp Fire that scorched the Butte County town.

John J. Un­der­hill, who was among the evac­uees from the Camp Fire, rests at a Red Cross shel­ter that was set up in Chico.

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