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'It’s gone. Paradise is gone.' Fire destroys a town, taking so many lives with it

'It’s gone. Paradise is gone.' Fire destroys a town, taking so many lives with it
Silence hangs over Paradise, Calif., after the explosive Camp fire burned through Butte County and claimed 23 lives. Residents have not been allowed back. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Two days after walls of flames devoured the entire Sierra foothills town of Paradise in minutes, three firefighters set about surveying the damage Saturday so they could report back to evacuees they’d grown up with on what they’d seen.

Capt. Alejandro Saise, firefighter A.J. Mount and engineer Phil Rose had little good news to share.

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Saise, 45, shook his head in sadness as he took in the scorched, smoking landscape. It was a vast patchwork of ash piles, mangled metal and skeletal pines more than 100 feet tall in a once thriving neighborhood of retirees and young families.

“There’s no easy way to say it,” Saise said. “I’ve texted, ‘Sorry, brother, but it’s gone,’ at least 30 times in the last 48 hours.”

“We’ve only found one house standing out of 20 we visited today,” he added.

Moments later, the firefighters climbed into Engine 82 and trundled down a winding two-lane road, dodging a tangle of severed power lines and smoldering trees that threatened to topple into the debris scattered around the once-quaint town. Soon, they found the rubble of yet another home that until the fire swept through was adorned with a white picket fence, a gazebo, folding chairs and a barbecue.

“I just texted the sad news about this house, an enchanting pocket of Paradise only 48 hours ago,” Saise said. All that survived, he told the owner, was an old Ford pickup truck.

The news only got worse Saturday as people tried to understand the scope of the tragedy.

The bodies of an additional 14 people killed by the Camp fire were discovered Saturday, bringing the blaze’s death toll to 23. Scores of people were still missing.

The remains of 10 people were found in Paradise, seven of them in homes. Four more were in surrounding areas of Butte County, two of them in cars. Family members of missing persons were submitting DNA at a lab truck to help identify remains.

The Camp fire is already the most destructive in California history, destroying 6,453 homes and 260 commercial buildings in less than 24 hours. It is also destined to be the among the deadliest.

Residents who were able to outrun the fire said they still cannot fathom how much of their town was lost, or imagine how many of their neighbors might be gone.

“We not only lost our home,” said resident Sue Brown. “We lost a whole community. It’s gone. Paradise is gone.”

Brown and her husband, Sidney, who’d planned to spend their retirement in their three-bedroom home in Paradise, got a half-hour warning to evacuate. Sidney had taken off his wedding ring, because of swollen fingers, and lost it in the blaze.

The couple have been trying to keep busy by volunteering at an Elks Lodge evacuation center in nearby Chico. Sue Brown doesn’t expect the gravity of what’s happened to sink in until they return to their property.

The windswept fire exploded out of the mountains northeast of Paradise around dawn Thursday and started pelting the town’s rooftops with embers just before the full-scale firestorm came raging through the streets.

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Residents who scrambled to escape down the main highway were terrified by towering flames licking at their vehicles from both sides.

Traumatized Paradise survivors were among 52,000 people chased out of their homes by the Camp fire. Many spent Saturday at evacuation centers in Chico and Oroville.

At Oroville’s Church of the Nazarene, Markham Odell, 61, recalled feeling the fire’s overwhelming heat as he scrambled to get out of Paradise. The sky turned black as thick smoke blocked the early morning sun.

A dead bird fell out of nowhere, hitting him on the shoulder.

“I’ve never panicked at any time in my life,” Odell said. “But I felt it start to come.”

Odell, a prospector who works in Nevada, has lived on his Feather River Canyon property since 1987. A friend sent him a photo of the fire’s aftermath. Odell’s home, greenhouse, barn and tool shed were gone.

“We’re homeless,” he said. “Most of our friends are homeless. Our family also.”

One of the last things Odell grabbed was a copy of his home insurance policy.

“This is a long haul,” Odell said. “This isn’t just one year. This is a whole town, a whole infrastructure to rebuild.”

Inside the church, hundreds of evacuees set up a message board with the names and numbers of people searching for loved ones.

“People have been subdued,” said Steve Walsh, a regional spokesman for the American Red Cross, which was operating the shelter. “They seem numb to what’s happening.”

At Neighborhood Church in Chico, dozens of evacuees lined up outside tents set up by insurance companies.

Gerald Zastrow, 82, his wife Nancy, 70, and her sister Terri Myers, 80, slept Thursday and Friday nights on small cots in the church’s shelter. They abandoned their Paradise home with just a handful of possessions.

“If I got off the hill the way God made me, I was lucky,” Nancy Zastrow said. “If I got anything more than that, which I did, I was really lucky.”

She found evidence online that the health center down the road from their home hadn’t burnt down, but a neighbor’s house had.

“The majority of the people need to know if they have a home or not,” she said. “It’s the not knowing that’s the killer. This limbo is really difficult.”

As of Saturday night, the fire had consumed 105,000 acres and was just 20% contained.

A red-flag warning through Monday morning for winds gusting up to 50 mph left people on edge across the smoke-choked region, 130 miles north of Sacramento.

“These very strong winds are going to create those critical conditions for firefighters working over the next 24 to 36 hours,” said Alex Hoon, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The forecast only heightened the anxiety across Butte County.

Among the displaced was Anthony Campa, a 40-year resident of what he described as “a mountain town like no other.”

“The family lines of some people I grew up with stretch back to the Gold Rush era in the 1860s,” he said at a restaurant in Chico.

As caravans of fire engines and utility trucks rushed past the window, he said the big question among evacuees is what the future holds.

“Paradise was an exceptional place to live for generations,” Campa said wistfully. “It may be again, but not for generations to come.”

Up the mountain in what’s left of Paradise, Anne Benoit and her husband, Joe McNally, were trying to come to terms with the loss of everything they owned on 20 acres of land: Two houses, a barn, a garage, a stable and a Christmas tree farm.

“We lost 10,000 Christmas trees that were 2 to 10 years old,” Benoit said. “We tried to defend them with garden hoses, but it wasn’t enough.”

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It takes about a decade to grow a Christmas tree. “But I’m 70, and Joe is 71,” Benoit said. “So, with the crop gone, we won’t grow another.”

For the Engine 82 crew taking stock of the damage, there were occasional bits of good news they could text to distressed evacuees.

“We were able to tell a few folks that we’d rescued a cat or dog,” Mount said. “That meant a lot to them.”

All three of the firefighters on the truck had seen action in the Middle East when they were in the Marines or the Navy. But on Saturday, they were overcome by the scale of the devastation in Paradise. It exceeded anything they’d ever seen.

“In years past, I fought fires that roared through some area, taking one neighborhood at a time,” Saise said. “For me, this is the first big fire that actually ate up an entire community of 27,000 residents that used to be a beautiful little mountain town in which to enjoy the best life has to offer.”

They also found comfort in their mission as scouts sending damage assessments to their heartbroken, displaced neighbors.

“It will bring confirmation to something in their mind’s eye,” Rose said. “It’s a confirmation they need in order to continue on.”

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