Frustrated and angry after being displaced for nearly a month by the deadly Camp fire, some Paradise residents on Wednesday morning finally got the news they’d been waiting for: They were allowed to return to their properties.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Department used text alerts and automated messages to inform residents in three of the community’s 14 zones that they would be able to access their properties from Pentz Road, a major thoroughfare. Authorities said they had been waiting to clear roads of hazardous debris before allowing residents back in.
The fire, the most destructive in California history, claimed at least 85 lives, inflicted multiple injuries, and has cost billions of dollars in damages. The green light to return to the devastated community of Paradise came only hours after hundreds of desperate evacuees packed a Tuesday night meeting in Oroville, venting their frustration and seeking answers from authorities.
“On what legal grounds can authorities keep people from the property?” one person asked on a notecard that was read aloud by Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.
Some residents broke out in whispers at the blunt question, which reflected the tension building in recent weeks. Shari Silveira, 57, left the 2½-hour meeting exasperated at not being able to learn when she could return to her property. She said her home had been destroyed in the blaze.
“I need to be able to shut that door before I can open another door,” she said. “I’m pissed. I’m not getting answers.”
In the neighboring community of Concow, about 500 residents were allowed to return to their properties on Tuesday to sift through the remnants of their former lives. Some were left speechless by what little remained.
Daniel Andrus wandered atop the charred hillside where his two-story yellow house once stood. White ash, black soot and melted steel beams were all that was left of the 1,000-square-foot structure.
It had been nearly a month since Andrus narrowly escaped the flames, grabbing his 8-year-old longhaired chihuahua, Shorty. As they dodged flying embers along a winding 5-mile road, Andrus regretted not bringing his handgun with him so that he could end his life quickly, if need be.
Andrus, 66, said he knew right away that his house stood no chance of surviving the blaze that surprised the unincorporated mountain community early in the morning on Nov. 8. Like many of his neighbors, the 31-year Concow resident had been anxious to return and salvage his belongings. The former gem cutter was hoping to find his collections of precious metals, diamonds and silver coins.
When he arrived around 10 a.m. Tuesday, he didn’t even bother to sift through the debris.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. I was expecting to find at least some stuff,” he said, placing his hands in his pockets with resignation. “I’m not going to even bother looking for anything. It’s all gone.”
Concow residents are accustomed to hardship. Andrus and his neighbors lost their homes in 2008 when another fire tore through the remote community of around 700. Many locals live miles apart from one another, and it’s possible to go weeks without seeing another soul. Cellphone reception is spotty, and the tall pine trees and narrow, winding roads enhance the community’s sense of isolation.
But Concow’s collective loss a decade ago brought residents closer together and taught them to be resilient when faced with a crisis.
For Andrus, the Camp fire was a reminder that family connection trumps material possessions. He said that he had been taking care of his elderly mother who was suffering from kidney failure when the fires burned his house down in 2008. She died two weeks later.
“She was the most important person in my life,” Andrus said as tears streamed down his face. “Things are replaceable. I don’t care about personal items.”
Andrus rebuilt in 2008 and vows to rebuild again. He has no other choice. “I’m on a fixed income and I own this property. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Just up the road, Murphy Paradise, 28, was in good spirits as he sifted through the debris of his double wide mobile home. His black boots shaded into white as he waded through the ash, pausing to bend and examine the detritus with his bare hands. After about 30 minutes he finally pulled out some buried knives.
“Look what I found!” he shouted to his brother, standing nearby.
Paradise has lived in Concow since he was 7 and has a close relationship to the land. It’s where his father taught him chores and where he hung out with his first girlfriend when he was 16.
But life hasn’t been easy. His father died unexpectedly soon after the 2008 fire tore through his neighborhood. The anguish was too much for Paradise to bear and he turned to alcohol, he said.
“It took me years to realize that I wasn’t handling my grief the right way,” Paradise said. “It’s just recently that I stopped drinking.”
Paradise still remains optimistic despite losing his house. “I have two choices: Either I throw a pity party or I take this situation and evolve as a person,” he said. “We are going to rebuild and come back bigger and better.”
But other Concow residents aren’t sure if they even want to return.
Treva Mauch said she had fled the approaching inferno around 6:30 a.m. She’d jumped into her Honda with her 95-year-old mother; her husband, Larry Mauch, was in his black SUV right behind her. The couple barely could see in front of them as embers and black smoke clogged the sky.
They soon found themselves trapped by flames on all sides as they careered down the nearly 6-mile-long twisting road toward safety. “I hate this place!” Treva yelled as she tried to escape.