Scorch­ing a grim path of destruc­tion

Camp Fire roars through Par­adise, leav­ing at least five peo­ple dead

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

PAR­ADISE, Butte County — Day­light on Fri­day ex­posed the scope of the deadly Camp Fire, which has claimed the lives of at least five peo­ple and con­tin­ues to rip through Butte County, af­ter qua­dru­pling in size to 70,000 acres to leave a path of destruc­tion in the Sierra foothills town 90 miles north of Sacra­mento.

The five vic­tims, who were not iden­ti­fied, were found in ve­hi­cles burned by the blaze in the area of Edge­wood Lane, ac­cord­ing to the Butte County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice. In ad­di­tion to the lives lost, three fire­fight­ers have been in­jured and more than 2,000 struc­tures have been in­cin­er­ated.

In what re­mains of the town, 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.

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. Homes have been dec­i­mated and an un­known num­ber of peo­ple re­main miss­ing.

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.

With the blaze at just 5 per­cent con­tain­ment as of Fri­day af­ter­noon, of­fi­cials ex­pected the ex­treme fire con­di­tions to con­tinue through the week­end, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion, or Cal Fire. 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, a town of 27,000 peo­ple.

More than 50,000 peo­ple in to­tal were evac­u­ated from Par­adise and nearby com­mu­ni­ties. Many peo­ple posted on so­cial me­dia pho­tos and last known ad­dresses of miss­ing fam­ily mem­bers. Of­fi­cials did not not have any im­me­di­ate num­bers on how many peo­ple were un­ac­counted for. 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.”

Scott Lot­ter, a Par­adise City Coun­cil mem­ber and 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 half-mile.

The town is pri­mar­ily a hilly, re­tire­ment spot and bed­room com­mu­nity to Chico with “big, beau­ti­ful trees,” Lot­ter said. This week, vot­ers ap­proved a half-cent sales tax within the city, but he didn’t know what would be left to tax.

“I guess there won’t be much of my town left,” Lot­ter said. “It’s too soon to tell how much we’ve lost. Par­adise doesn’t have a sewage sys­tem. We’re all on sep­tic. We’re one of the largest com­mu­ni­ties west of the Mis­sis­sippi with­out sewage. That’s one of our chal­lenges, and then you have some­thing like this.

“We may end up with only 1,000 peo­ple in town,” he said. “What’s go­ing to hap­pen to our rev­enues?”

Ef­forts on Fri­day re­mained fo­cused on sav­ing lives and bat­tling the fire, Ghi­lar­ducci said.

“We are not just re­spond­ing to what’s in front of us, but we are also con­tem­plat­ing what the next 24 hours to 48 hours are go­ing to look like,” he said.

New evac­u­a­tions were or­dered Fri­day for two Butte County com­mu­ni­ties, Stir­ling City and In­skip. The Butte County Jail is a mile from an evac­u­a­tion warn­ing area, but the nearly 600 in­mates there had not been moved, said Me­gan McMann, a spokes­woman for the Sher­iff ’s Of­fice.

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.

Fire per­son­nel bat­tling the blaze in­creased to 2,289 with 303 fire en­gines, 59 fire crews, 11 he­li­copters, 24 bull­doz­ers and 11 wa­ter ten­ders, Cal Fire said. Help has been re­quested from nearby states, in­clud­ing Ore­gon, Ne­vada, New Mex­ico, Wy­oming and Wash­ing­ton.

The late-sea­son wild­fire fu­eled by dry con­di­tions rep­re­sents Cal­i­for­nia’s new nor­mal, of­fi­cials said.

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

Bob Schofield has lived in the 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.”

Schofield heard that the schools he worked at sur­vived the fire largely in­tact. On Fri­day, which hap­pened to be Schofield’s 54th birth­day, his fam­ily was buy­ing clothes and fig­ur­ing out where to stay for the com­ing days or weeks. He ex­pected to spend much of his birth­day on the phone with their in­sur­ance com­pany.

“One of my fa­vorite say­ings is, it’s just an­other day in the ad­ven­ture,” Schofield said. “Ev­ery time some­thing goes wrong, it’s just an­other day in the ad­ven­ture. We are out of dan­ger. Ev­ery­thing else, you just go with the flow.”

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 writer Kim­berly Vek­lerov con­tributed to this re­port.

Pho­tos by Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

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

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

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

This is what re­mains of the Safe­way store in Par­adise. It was gut­ted when the Camp Fire burned its deadly path through town.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

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

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