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Camp fire survivors trickle back into Paradise and surrounding communities. Some never left

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Kevin Jeys sits inside the home he never left during the Camp fire.
(Nicole Santa Cruz / Los Angeles Times)

For more than a month after the wildfire, Matt Miller and his wife slept on an air mattress at a friend’s house in the small town of Durham, west of Paradise.

The evacuees shared the home with their displaced elderly neighbors, who also fled the Camp fire’s flames on Nov. 8.

As the days dragged into weeks, the Millers weren’t sure what they’d find when they finally went back home to Paradise.

Last Saturday, the couple returned to their home off Neal Road. There’s some property damage and the gas hasn’t been turned on yet, but they are happy to be back.

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Miller joked that two small shisa dog statues placed outside his door saved his home. The Chinese statues are supposed to ward off evil spirits.

“It feels great to be home,” Miller said Thursday night in his driveway. “A little different.”

After the last of the evacuation orders were lifted, people began trickling back into Paradise and the hardest-hit areas.

On a recent afternoon, roads were clogged with cleanup crews and utility workers. The Starbucks in Paradise was still closed, but The Big O Tires store was open. A Walgreens had opened off Skyway, the main road that runs through town, but there was a burned-out Honda civic stuck in the parking lot. White signs around town were lettered with motivational phrases like “We will rebuild!” The post office opened this week and on Saturday, a local ice skating rink was to open amid a Christmas tree lighting.

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Outside the remnants of a torched barber shop was a sign proclaiming, “Call Mark yer barber.”

In Magalia, Red Lion pizza bustled with people. The restaurant was one of the only places open in the area, and people lined up for food, beers and salad.

Michaela Price filled small containers with grated Parmesan. Price lived in the part of Magalia that didn’t burn, but she was still displaced for weeks.

Price said that at times, people have waited two hours for food at the restaurant, which is doing about five times the business it was before the fire.

“People are coming back and they’re coming in and wanting food,” she said.

Nearby, Johnny Pohmajevich, who works as a maintenance worker for Timber Ridge Real Estate, perched his feet atop a desk.

When Pohmajevich’s house in Magalia burned down, he moved into his work office and subsisted off canned food and Halloween candy. Lately, the office has been busy with people coming in to sell their homes, so he stuffs his sleeping mattress discreetly under his desk.

“This place got nuked,” he said.

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Others stuck around Magalia after the fire as well.

Kevin Jeys said he hunkered down at home with his cats, birds and bearded dragon named Lord Bentley. He lived off the inspiration of each sunrise and sunset, he said, and rationed logs of wood for his fireplace each night. He settled into a routine of listening to the nightly press briefings.

His new life has required some mental adjustment.

Right after the fire, Jeys said he’d be walking around outside, and feel the heat of the day. It reminded him of the heat he felt during the fire.

“I was not on a good relationship with the sun there for a little while,” he said.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

Twitter: @nicolesantacruz


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