Wild­fire leaves lit­tle for those it spared

Cus­tomers, jobs gone for those un­touched by Camp Fire

San Francisco Chronicle (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

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.

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