Res­i­dents head back into Cal­i­for­nia town lev­eled by wild­fire

Woonsocket Call - - VALLEY/NATION - By DON THOMP­SON and OLGA R. RO­DRIGUEZ

PAR­ADISE, Calif. — Joyce and Jerry McLean sifted through twisted metal and bro­ken glass Wed­nes­day on the prop­erty where their mo­bile home once stood, hop­ing to find pre­cious fam­ily pos­ses­sions that might have sur­vived the dev­as­tat­ing Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire that lev­eled Par­adise.

They were among hun­dreds of res­i­dents who were fi­nally al­lowed back into neigh­bor­hoods on the east side of town a month after the blaze killed at least 85 peo­ple and de­stroyed about 14,000 homes.

The cou­ple, wear­ing white haz­mat suits and leather gloves, searched for his gold wed­ding band, a Bi­ble that be­longed to his great-grand­mother and Christ­mas or­na­ments made by their son when he was a boy.

“We didn’t own ex­pen­sive things, but we had a lot of mem­ory things,” said Joyce McLean, 73. “If I can find a lit­tle piece of his fam­ily or just a lit­tle piece of my son, I would be happy.”

Ear­lier in the day, a long line of cars waited in a cold driz­zle at a check­point to en­ter ar­eas where evac­u­a­tion or­ders had been lifted.

Crews in yel­low slick­ers were still clear­ing de­bris from burned homes and re­mov­ing trees from streets lit­tered with melted plas­tic trash cans and hol­lowed ve­hi­cles on tire­less rims.

Some res­i­dents have been al­lowed back into nearby com­mu­ni­ties in the fire zone, but Wed­nes­day marked the first time res­i­dents of Par­adise got a first­hand look at what was left of their town of 27,000 peo­ple that was hit the hard­est by the blaze.

More than 50,000 peo­ple in Par­adise and the neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Ma­galia and Con­cow were forced to quickly flee the tow­er­ing, wind-driven flames that charred 240 square miles (622 square kilo­me­ters). Au­thor­i­ties said 11 peo­ple were still un­ac­counted for in what was the dead­li­est U.S. wild­fire in at least a cen­tury.

Joyce McLean said she had seen pho­tos on so­cial me­dia of her burned home and knew one of the only things that sur­vived was an Amer­i­can flag fly­ing on a pole.

“We lost ev­ery­thing but the clothes on our backs,” she said about their har­row­ing dash for safety.

In their search Wed­nes­day, they found tools that be­longed to Jerry McLean’s fa­ther and a set of sou­venir spoons that be­longed to Joyce McLean’s mother, but there was no sign of the pre­cious items they had hoped to find.

“I don’t think we’re go­ing to find the Bi­ble, not much chance,” said Jerry McLean, 72.

Joyce McLean said the thought of re­turn­ing after the fire had made her ner­vous and emo­tional, but she wanted to at least re­cover the flag.

“I think some­thing was telling us to be there,” she said about the im­ages she saw on so­cial me­dia. “The only thing that was stand­ing was the flag­pole, with the flag still fly­ing, and our wel­come sign with our name and ad­dress.”

Re­becca Rogers of Chico came to sup­port her friend, Jen­nifer Chris­tensen, who lost her Par­adise home in the fire.

Rogers be­lieves she found the re­mains of Chris­tensen’s cat, Mar­ble, un­der what used to be her friend’s bed. Rogers was in tears when she ap­proached the McLeans to ask for a bag to gather the re­mains.

“I don’t want her to look. It’s just too much,” Rogers sobbed be­fore bury­ing the re­mains in the front yard of her friend’s home. “I’ve got to be strong; I’ve got to do this for her. “

The com­mu­ni­ties will have very lim­ited ser­vices for the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, and au­thor­i­ties urged re­turn­ing res­i­dents to bring food, wa­ter and fuel for ve­hi­cles.

They were also warned they should not move back into homes un­til ash and haz­ardous waste have been cleared, and that rain could in­crease the risk of flash floods and mud­slides.

The McLeans are tem­po­rar­ily rent­ing a house in the re­gion, but they plan to move back to Par­adise and have al­ready bought a two-bed­room mo­bile home to re­place the one they lost.

They also in­tend to keep search­ing the rub­ble for their pre­cious pos­ses­sions.

“To­day was just kind of a come-

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