Wildfire leaves little for those it spared
Customers, jobs gone for those untouched by Camp Fire
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
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.