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California fires: Some thought they’d found refuge in Paradise — until a fire found them in its path

They were sleepy places: Paradise, Magalia, tiny Concow (population 710 at the last Census count).

When flames swept through them last Thursday morning, many escaped down the narrow, winding roads that kept them tucked away, a little off the beaten track.

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Others were home — sick in bed, listening for updates on the radio. They were frantic to save their pets, put necessities in their cars and drive off.

At last count, though the number climbs daily, 63 people had lost their lives in the Camp fire, already the deadliest in California’s recorded history.

With 631 more people listed as missing, the dismal search in the smoldering rubble continued.

For a number of those who died, these small, woodsy spots tucked in the Sierra foothills were a refuge from the world.

John Digby, a 78-year-old Air Force veteran, had come to Paradise to retire.

Ernest Foss, a 63-year-old rock ’n’ roll musician, moved there after he was priced out of San Francisco.

Debbe Morningstar, years ago, had followed her sister, who eventually lured much of the family up from their homes in Downey and Corona.

Morningstar decided to not evacuate, said her niece Alison Holguin, 38.

She lived alone with her cats and, during previous fires, had been through both the packing and the unpacking several times.

Holguin said her family had held out hope until they received a phone call Monday morning from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. They were told her aunt had not survived.

Morningstar, 65, had lived in Paradise more than 30 years. Her sister Becki Nelson lived just five minutes away.

Their family get-togethers always were full of music and laughter, Holguin said.

Morningstar was funny and sarcastic. She would play the piano while her sisters sang in harmony. They had a soft spot for John Denver and loved Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.”

“There was always this joyful noise in our home when we would gather,” Holguin said.

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Foss, who moved to Paradise eight years ago, knew how to play guitar, bass guitar, drums and saxophone. He used to perform with bands around San Francisco.

Foss was only 20 when he became a father. Then he found himself a single parent. He eventually gave up his band life to take care of his three children.

He raised them in a small Bay Area cottage, equipped with a recording studio. He taught music lessons from there and also helped his daughter Angela Loo learn to play her violin.

“He had a beautiful voice,” Loo said. “He had a crazy wild life and then he had kids and then he did his best to do right by us.”

For 10 years, Foss had been struggling with a condition called lymphedema — fluid retention, which left his arms and legs badly swollen and kept him pretty much bedridden.

He told Loo that if something ever happened to him, she should go through his extensive vinyl collection, which he planned to give to a friend.

“I hid stuff for you in the dust jackets,” he told her.

Authorities told Loo that her father’s body had been found outside his home near his minivan, next to the remains of Bernice, his service dog. His stepson and caretaker, Andrew Burt, had yet to be found.

When the fire began, John Digby, a soft-spoken man, was in bed, feeling sick and on the phone with his son, Roman, who lives in Minnesota.

While he was still on the phone, a neighbor knocked on his door. Digby ignored the sound, unaware of the messenger's warning to evacuate.

Neither father nor son understood that a fire was raging outside.

Hours later, Roman called his father again, but all he got on the other end was static.

He Googled Paradise and Google told him that fire had engulfed the town.

Carl Wiley, 77, lived in nearby Magalia. He was a veteran whose whose family was from much farther north, Alaska. He’d lived for decades in Butte County, where he refurbished tires, his son James Wiley told CBS in Sacramento.

After the blaze came to Concow, family and friends of Jesus Fernandez, 48, who was known as Zeus, started searching for him and his German shepherd.

Myrna Pascua, a family friend, said in a written statement that Fernandez was a loving father who would be sorely missed.

He was “a tireless provider, a dependable and loyal friend,” she said.

Back in Paradise, people who escaped the fire wonder if their town will live on. The blaze destroyed thousands of their homes, as well as their churches, restaurants and schools.

So many residents were retirees on fixed incomes. Their peace of mind came being home, in the comfort of everyday routine.

Phyllis and Christopher Salazar had a place on Sawmill Road.

They had raised a big family: one biological son, five adopted children and three foster children.

“There were so many of us that it was like a party at the house every day,” said foster daughter Anita Razo, 58.

Dad, a retired postal worker, was kind and understanding. Mom, who stayed home with her brood and lent a hand as a church accountant, was caring and often strict. The whole family went to church every Sunday. At Christmas, the couple used to take the kids camping in the Ventura County mountains, but they’d be back in time for a big Christmas dinner.

Once the kids were out of the house, life slowed down for Phyllis, 72, and Chris, 76.

Phyllis used to go around town, taking the elderly to doctor’s appointments.

When Chris’ health worsened and he needed a motorized scooter to get around, she cared for him and refused to consider a nursing home.

This week, Razo found comfort in knowing that her mom and dad had each other until the end.

She remembered his words, the ones he’d always tell his kids in times of trouble:

“Don’t fret too much. Things have a way of working out.”

Along those lines, she said of her parents, “it probably would have been their wish to go together.”

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