The sign that greets visitors to this town in the Sierra Nevada foothills proudly states: “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.”
But after a fast-moving wildfire ravaged this community of 27,000 people, forcing thousands to flee by car and on foot, Paradise has become something else entirely. It has joined the growing list of California towns and cities devastated by one of the worst fire seasons on record.
Officials said at least nine people died and more than 6,700 homes and commercial buildings were lost — making it the most destructive fire to property in state history.
On Friday, a day after the Camp fire broke out, this formerly thriving community sat under a dark canopy of ash and smoke.
Homes and businesses had been reduced to piles of twisted metal. Tall pine trees and utility poles smoldered. According to the California Teachers Assn., at least five of the nine schools in Paradise were destroyed, including Paradise Elementary School.
Cars abandoned by fleeing motorists who found themselves unable to escape lay crumpled in the roadways, their tires melted.
The bodies of five people were discovered on Edgewood Lane in vehicles overtaken by the fire. Others were found outside their cars and homes. Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea said they could not immediately be identified because they were burned so badly.
“There were people who weren’t able to get out,” Honea said, speaking from a makeshift command post at Butte College, which had been closed Thursday. As he talked, flakes of white ash fell on his uniform as strong winds continued to sweep across the nearby burning ridges.
Authorities are recovering bodies “with as much dignity as we can afford them,” he said.
It could be weeks before officials determine the cause of the Camp fire, named because it began near Camp Creek Road in Butte County. On Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. notified state regulators that one of its high-voltage power lines located near where the fire began had malfunctioned shortly before the first flames were reported on Thursday morning.
Fueled by strong northeast winds and a parched landscape, the fire grew to 90,000 acres by Friday evening.
It forced more than 50,000 people in Paradise and surrounding towns to evacuate. Many of them spilled onto a four-lane road called Skyway — the main evacuation route out of Paradise — that quickly became jammed. Residents described sitting in traffic as flames on both sides of the road reached for their cars.
Faced with worsening gridlock, fire officials said they made a crucial decision to focus their energy on rescuing people stranded on the road, unable to move, rather than try to beat back the growing inferno.
By Friday afternoon, it was only 5% contained.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that a few thousand firefighters had been dispatched to battle the blaze. At least three had been injured.
Firefighters’ assault on the Camp fire has, so far, prevented it from reaching Chico, home to about 90,000 people west of Paradise.
Parts of Paradise were still burning Friday afternoon as law enforcement authorities and utility company workers began to survey the damage. Honea said conditions were too “unstable” for sheriff’s deputies to go door-to-door looking for survivors.
Though it was well-known as a retirement community, the town was also home to about 12,000 families. It was a place of rolling hills dotted with tidy homes, dropped in the middle of a thick forest of pine and oak trees.
Paradise Vice Mayor Greg Bolin said that early reports from fire officials suggested that 80 to 90% of the town had burned. Bolin, who lost his home, said: “The town is gone.”
“The magnitude of the destruction in Paradise and a year ago in Santa Rosa is such that it will take many years to recover,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican lawmaker who represents Paradise and toured the destruction Friday. “The sadness is that a lot of people who lost their homes will not be able to afford to return once the improvements are completed because the cost of new housing just keeps getting higher and higher.”
As towns emptied and evacuation centers filled, many residents’ focus shifted from securing their own safety to searching for family members and friends.
Teresa Roberts spent the day frantically trying to reach her mother, Marilyn Allen, 69, and her grandfather, Richard Torres, 85, whose home of 13 years she feared was lost. Neither had registered themselves as safe on the Red Cross website. Her mom’s cellphone rang and rang. She didn’t respond to emails.
“I’m just terrified,” said Roberts. “Did they get out? That’s all I want to know.”
This part of Butte County is no stranger to wildfires. Ten years ago, a blaze swept through Paradise, destroying dozens of structures and forcing chaotic evacuations; the resulting panic was so alarming, angry residents showed up for months at community meetings demanding change.
“There had been no planning,” said Peggy Musgrave, 85, who escaped that fire only to find herself in gridlock again Thursday, joined once more by thousands of Paradise residents fleeing another raging fire.
But this time, Musgrave said, she felt there was a measure of control. People had been mailed instructions on what to do: what to pack, what routes to take out of town and a reminder to plan for their pets. When she learned through word of mouth of the encroaching Camp fire, she went to her closet for her box of prized photographs and records, and to another for her jewelry. Then she left.
“We immediately went into action,” she said.
Traffic stopped. It took two hours for Musgrave to traverse approximately 16 miles. But at almost every intersection, she said, there was an official directing traffic and reassuring those in the gridlock they would be safe.
“It gave you a feeling that if something did go wrong, we had somebody to be miserable with,” Musgrave said.
Residents such as Howard Cole, who sought shelter at a converted church in Oroville, knew they were in fire country and said the evacuations are not unexpected.
“This is our fourth evacuation in 10 years,” Cole said. “The first couple were chaos. It’s getting better.”
Other Paradise residents were critical — not of the traffic jams that ensued, but of what they said was a lack of warning to get out in the first place.
Jane Palmer, 77, said she received four automated calls the night before the fire from PG&E, telling her the utility was about to cut her power, which it did about 9:30 p.m.
She said she realized Paradise was on fire and her mobile home park was threatened when she saw the smoke and flames. As Palmer drove out, she encountered a neighbor, Patsy Jacobs, 62, trying to walk out and picked her up. Because Palmer cannot see well, Jacobs helped navigate her rescuer through the thick smoke.
“What pisses me off is I don’t think they told everybody soon enough,” said Kim Benn, 49, a neighbor who realized she needed to flee the fire when another resident pounded on her door.
Honea said the county sent out automated warning calls to 23,862 households, using its Code Red system. However, it did not deploy a universal alert through the national emergency warning system that would have reached every cellphone within reach of activated cellphone towers.
Amid the scenes of devastation and loss were stories of generosity.
Farshad Azad, a taekwondo grandmaster, turned his studio in Chico into a shelter for evacuees and their pets. By Friday afternoon, about 30 people had moved in. Among his guests was a woman who had lost her home but had managed to rescue 11 cats from her neighborhood.
“People are helping each other out right now, and that’s how it should be,” Azad said. “We should be in a place where we exercise compassion and kindness and humanity. It’s just too bad that stuff like that has to come out of disasters and tragedies.”