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In monstrous Butte County fire, small town Paradise loved and lost

In monstrous Butte County fire, small town Paradise loved and lost
Businesses continue to burn in Paradise, which one woman raised there called "like Mayberry. It was this beautiful old mining town." (Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)

Beverly Meintsma is 73 years old. She has been married for more than 50 years.

Two months ago, she fell, broke her leg, needed surgery. Before she left her home in Paradise for a rehab center in Chico, she placed her wedding ring in her jewelry box for safekeeping.

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On Thursday, her longtime home burned to the ground in the voracious, fast-moving Camp fire, which has already claimed an unknown number of lives and 70,000 acres and counting. Meinstma will be released from Chico Creek Rehabilitation Center in 30 days. She has no place to go, nothing left.

Not even her wedding ring.

“She is traumatized and trying to figure out what she’s going to do,” said Heidi Peden, Meintsma’s daughter. “She has no home. She has nothing but the clothes on her back .... She hopes she can find her ring in the rubble.”

Peden tells her mother’s story in a breathless rush, stopping only to choke back tears. But it’s not just her mother’s story of grief and loss that tumbles out on Friday morning. It belongs to her father, who was evacuated on Thursday from the nursing home where he has lived since Alzheimer’s disease bore down. His beloved town is mostly gone. So is his memory of it.

Heidi Peden and her parents, Beverly and Jack Meintsma, on her graduation from Paradise High School in 1993. The family home was destroyed in the Camp fire, along with many others.
Heidi Peden and her parents, Beverly and Jack Meintsma, on her graduation from Paradise High School in 1993. The family home was destroyed in the Camp fire, along with many others. (Heidi Peden)

It belongs to Peden herself, born in Feather River Hospital 43 years ago and now living in Tucson, and to her friends in the Paradise High Class of ’93. Everyone in the small, Butte County town owns a big piece of the pain, so do those who loved it and left.

“Everyone I know has lost their homes,” Peden says. “It’s my beloved childhood home, like Mayberry. It was this beautiful old mining town .... It’s been there since the Gold Rush. We had a Gold Nugget Day parade every year. It’s a world unto itself, in this mountain paradise.”

But.

“We all knew as children the threat of fire,” she said.

And then she launches into her best friend’s story, a near-death tale of devastation, a normal day that turned into “a horror movie.”

Casey Rickards Dawson is a nurse at Feather River Hospital. She clocked in as usual at 6:10 a.m. on Thursday. Ten minutes later, the fire was bearing down and the hospital staff had to evacuate.

Peden sounds nearly as shaken as Dawson must have been as she struggled toward safety Thursday. The friends spoke Friday morning. The pain is infectious. This is how Peden tells the nurse’s awful tale, which began as embers flew around the endangered hospital.

“All the patients were put in the parking lot on the pavement lined up in gurneys, children, everyone, trying to get out,” Peden recounts. She pauses. “I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

“What happened next,” she said, “is truly horrific.

“Casey was told, ‘Help this woman and her baby get out of here.’ The woman and baby got in another car. Everyone was like, ‘Casey, get out of here.’ She took a left on Pence, the epicenter….

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“And all she could see were flames on all sides. She drove through it. She got to Fast-N-Easy and saw a fire truck. She’s thinking she’s going to die every minute. She pulled into Fast-N-Easy, a mini mart in the forest. My mom’s house is next to it. Casey witnessed my whole neighborhood burning up.”

But there was water at the market, a fire hydrant, other cars and firefighters. They told her to stay at the market with them. They sprayed her car down as she sheltered inside, praying. She stayed there for two hours.

From left, Casey Rickards Dawson, Heidi Peden and Mandy Grainger, all 1993 graduates of Paradise High, at their 25th high school reunion.
From left, Casey Rickards Dawson, Heidi Peden and Mandy Grainger, all 1993 graduates of Paradise High, at their 25th high school reunion. (Heidi Peden)

The firefighters finally told Dawson to head to the Kmart on Clark Road. When she got there, she found hundreds of people gathered together, wondering whether they would die. Peden stresses this point, over and over.

“Casey said, ‘Thank God this is pavement. Maybe we’re going to be safe,’” Peden recounted. “She had to be there until 4:30 or 5 p.m. She thought she’d die. She found a doctor who worked at the hospital. She needed to do something. She was feeding Cheez-Its to children and checking on patients from the hospital.

“Those people were all believing they were gonna die. Authorities said, ‘We’re going to escort you out.’ The caravan of all these people took a left down Clark Road. Telephone poles were on fire above them. They thought any minute these poles would come down.

“Casey witnessed cars being engulfed. She had an eerie, eerie feeling passing the Taco Bell, the only thing standing. It’s gone now,” Pende continued. “She thought she was going to die. Everyone did.

“They got down to state Highway 70 and she got to the blue sky. Behind her was this dark, dark, dark black sky. She didn’t know how she got out alive. She was shaking all morning. She didn’t sleep. We talked. I said, ‘You need to get your important documents, get them ready’.”

Dawson lives in Chico, about 15 miles from Paradise. And parts of Chico have been under evacuation orders. Peden said her friend took a shower on Friday morning, trying to scrub away the trauma of the last 24 hours.

But her hair still smells like smoke.

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