Fire de­stroys Par­adise, killing 9 res­i­dents

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY GIL­LIAN FLAC­CUS, DON THOMP­SON AND PAUL ELIAS

The air thick with smoke from a fe­ro­cious wild­fire that was still burn­ing homes Satur­day, res­i­dents who stayed be­hind to try to save their prop­erty or who man­aged to get back to their neigh­bor­hoods in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia found cars in­cin­er­ated and homes re­duced to rub­ble.

Peo­ple sur­veyed the dam­age and strug­gled to cope with what they had lost. En­tire neigh­bor­hoods were lev­eled and the busi­ness dis­trict was de­stroyed by a blaze that threat­ened to ex­plode again with the same fury that largely in­cin­er­ated the foothill town of Par­adise and killed at least nine peo­ple.

The flames burned down more than 6,700 build­ings, al­most all of them homes, mak­ing it Cal­i­for­nia’s most de­struc­tive wild­fire since record­keep­ing be­gan. There were 35 peo­ple still miss­ing.

More fire­fight­ers headed to the area Satur­day, with wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour ex­pected, rais­ing the risk of con­di­tions sim­i­lar to those when the fire started Thurs­day, said Alex Hoon with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. The blaze grew to 156 square miles, but crews made gains and it was par­tially con­tained, of­fi­cials said.

Peo­ple sidestepped metal that melted off cars and Jet-Skis and donned masks as they sur­veyed rav­aged neigh­bor­hoods de­spite an evac­u­a­tion or­der for all of Par­adise, a town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s. Some cried when they saw noth­ing was left.

Jan Mac­Gre­gor, 81, got back to his small two-bed­room home in Par­adise with the help of his fire­fighter grand­son. He found his home lev­eled – a large metal safe and some pipe work from his sep­tic sys­tem the only rec­og­niz­able traces. The safe was punc­tured with bul­let holes from guns in­side that went off in the scorch­ing heat.

He’s lived in Par­adise for 80 years, mov­ing there in 1939 when he said the town had just 3,000 peo­ple and was nick­named Poverty Ridge. The fire was not a com­plete sur­prise, he said.

“We knew Par­adise was a prime tar­get for for­est fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ‘em come right up to the city lim­its – oh yeah – but noth­ing like this,” he said.

Mac­Gre­gor said he prob­a­bly would not re­build: “I have noth­ing here to go back to.”

Homes and other build­ings in Par­adise were still burn­ing, and fire crews were try­ing to ex­tin­guish those blazes, said Scott McLean, a cap­tain with the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion. Of­fi­cials warned fire­fight­ers to wear their hel­mets and be care­ful of fall­ing trees.

Aban­doned, charred ve­hi­cles clut­tered the main thor­ough­fare, ev­i­dence of the pan­icked evac­u­a­tion as the wild­fire tore through Thurs­day. The dead were found mostly in­side their cars or and out­side ve­hi­cles and homes.

Five of the dead pan­icked when they couldn’t es­cape by car be­cause their route was cut off by a wall of fire, ac­cord­ing to Gabriel Fal­lon, who rode out the blaze with his par­ents to care for the horses, cows and live­stock on their 10acre farm in Par­adise.

The group turned the other way and dashed down the paved street un­til it turned into dirt and passed the Fal­lons’ farm, he said. One of the driv­ers stopped and asked Fal­lon if the di­rec­tion they were go­ing would lead them to safety. Fal­lon said he shook his head as the fire roared closer.

The mo­torists parked at the end of the road. On Satur­day, the charred shells of the five cars re­mained where they had been parked.

RICH PE­DRON­CELLI AP

Hospi­tal beds and other equip­ment sit in a park­ing lot out­side the Feather River Hospi­tal on Fri­day in Par­adise, Calif. Pa­tients were evac­u­ated from the hospi­tal be­fore a mas­sive wild­fire swept through the area Thurs­day.

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