Scorching a grim path of destruction
Camp Fire roars through Paradise, leaving at least five people dead
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.
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.
This is what remains of the Safeway store in Paradise. It was gutted when the Camp Fire burned its deadly path through town.
John J. Underhill, who was among the evacuees from the Camp Fire, rests at the Red Cross shelter that was set up in Chico.