Cal­i­for­ni­ans re­turn to ashes and ruin

For the first wave of peo­ple who fled the Camp Fire, an emo­tional home­com­ing

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SCOTT WIL­SON scott.wil­[email protected]­

What mat­tered most to Iva Shet­tlesworth, as she drove up the burned hill to the house where she had lived for the past decade, was her mother’s wed­ding ring.

At the end of Chatham Court, she and her fi­ance picked through the ash on a chilly morn­ing. And there, where her room had been, were the re­mains of the metal box that held her mother’s jew­elry. The ring was par­tially melted, but rec­og­niz­able as the one her mother wore be­fore she died five years ago.

“We’ve waited darn near a month to get back up here and find this,” Shet­tlesworth said. “The rest is a mess. But we found what we wanted.”

Just be­yond the edge of Par­adise, the city next door that burned from end to end, the first peo­ple who fled their homes in this com­mu­nity three weeks ago are be­ing al­lowed to re­turn and rum­mage through what re­mains of where they lived.

The fire burned more than 10,000 build­ings, most of them homes here in the Sierra foothills, be­fore fire­fight­ers fi­nally cor­ralled it last week. At least 88 peo­ple were killed when the blaze blew through the town of Par­adise and the com­mu­nity of Ma­galia, about a quar­ter the size of its neigh­bor. The cause is un­known.

Com­pound­ing the loss for the thou­sands of evac­uees has been the pur­ga­tory of wait­ing to re­turn. Res­cue work­ers, util­ity com­pa­nies and other cleanup op­er­a­tions have been try­ing to make these ru­ined com­mu­ni­ties safe for even the briefest of sur­veys — ar­du­ous, grim work that is still un­der­way.

Par­adise will not be open to the pub­lic for some time; the city is still a maze of closed roads and ruin, with work­ers in cranes trim­ming trees and fix­ing power lines.

Here in Ma­galia, the sanc­tioned re­turn be­gan Mon­day, and it has been halt­ing. Many trav­eled from fam­ily homes hours away to get in as soon as the town opened. For some, it is a search for keep­sakes, for oth­ers a form of ther­apy to put an im­age to the imag­ined de­struc­tion.

For most ev­ery­one, it is sim­ply sad.

“We’d seen in a video that the house was gone, but we’re back to see what me­men­tos of the house we still have,” said Al­iza Wieger, 19, who with her boyfriend Tommy Goucher toured the ru­ins of the home she grew up in off Nor­wich Road.

It was a triple-wide trailer, as many of the homes here were. The house next door sur­vived, and so did the one be­hind it. Noth­ing re­mained of the Wiegers’ place, and Al­iza wept softly as she walked through the site with the home’s charred street num­ber in her hands.

Goucher held two rocks in his hands — one painted with flow­ers, the other with a coiled snake. Wieger’s grand­fa­ther had painted them, and they were on a small list of things that she wanted to make sure she re­cov­ered if pos­si­ble.

“This is the only sal­vage­able stuff — rocks,” Goucher said.

The two do not plan to re­build here. The chaotic evac­u­a­tion is a mem­ory that angers Goucher, who said he only learned about the ap­proach­ing blaze from a com­mu­nity Face­book page. Only those who signed up for cell­phone alerts re­ceived them.

“There was no plan up here,” he said. “Peo­ple were driv­ing into each other [as they evac­u­ated]. It was crazy. We’re go­ing to start again some­where else.”

The newly elected state leg­is­la­ture con­vened in Sacra­mento for the first time this week, and pro­pos­als to strengthen fire pro­tec­tion and ex­am­ine the li­a­bil­ity of Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric and other big util­ity com­pa­nies are pri­or­i­ties. So is get­ting the warn­ing sys­tem right.

“We can’t leave this to the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties any­more,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Demo­crat whose dis­trict in­cludes Napa and some of the other ar­eas in wine coun­try that burned a year ago. “We’ll work with them, but there has to be a frame­work that works for all of Cal­i­for­nia. In ev­ery sin­gle in­ci­dent, the warn­ing sys­tem has been in­ad­e­quate.”

Many who re­turned to Ma­galia were the adult chil­dren of par­ents who can­not yet make the trip, ei­ther be­cause of dis­tance or health. This, like Par­adise, was a place for re­tire­ment, and the fire has scat­tered fam­i­lies across the state.

Wear­ing a mask to pro­tect against toxic fumes from the de­bris, Michael, who de­clined to give his last name, looked over his fa­ther’s home. He snapped pho­tos with his iPhone to email them later to his fam­ily.

His first car — a 1988 Porsche 944S — sat burned out in what had been the garage. Michael, 27, was stor­ing it there when the fire came. He said he did not know if his fa­ther would re­build the home, but he hoped see­ing it would set­tle his mind about the blaze and its af­ter­math.

“I can’t stop think­ing about it, even af­ter all this time,” Michael said. “But now I’ve seen it, so I hope that helps.”

For Jerry Gin­ter, the re­turn to his home of 12 years was a chance to find his knives.

Gin­ter was a meat cut­ter un­til his re­tire­ment and, al­though he knew the fire had gut­ted his dou­ble-wide trailer, he hoped his set of ex­pen­sive knives had sur­vived.

He had found part of his coin col­lec­tion, and his op­ti­mism was ris­ing as he bent over in what had been the small kitchen.

“Look what it did to this,” Gin­ter shouted to Mimi, his exwife who was help­ing him with the search. The blade had melted into a U shape. He couldn’t find the bon­ing knives, and his cleaver was a charred ruin. “Now that up­sets me,” he said. “Hey, there’s the red colan­der,” Mimi yelled to him. “If you can get it, we won’t have to buy a new one.”

The steel colan­der had sur­vived the most de­struc­tive fire in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory — no way to ex­plain that. Not far away stood the base of a 1950s-era bar­ber chair Gin­ter and Mimi had picked out. The seat it­self had burned up.

“We like old things, and we like to buy the best,” Gin­ter, 75, said. “Un­for­tu­nately, we are cer­tainly pay­ing for that now.”

Gin­ter is liv­ing with his daugh­ter in Lan­caster, a five-hour drive south. He is also in­sured, and in muddy jeans and gloves, he smiled at the de­bris in front of him.

“We’ll re­cover, that’s the thing,” he said. “This is a small in­con­ve­nience or maybe a big in­con­ve­nience. But we’ll re­cover.”


With evac­u­a­tion or­ders lifted for a small swath of Cal­i­for­nia af­fected by the Camp Fire, the first peo­ple who fled were cleared to re­turn. On Dec. 3, Jim Marin, top, sifts through the re­mains of his home for his wife’s wed­ding ring. Mean­while, Jerry Gin­ter, above, was lucky to find his wed­ding ring in the ru­ins of his Ma­galia home.

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