Some residents of Paradise, the mountain town leveled by fire on Nov. 8, will probably be allowed to return to what is left of their homes next week, officials said Wednesday.
The town has been off-limits in the nearly three weeks since the Camp fire, California’s deadliest fire on record, devastated the area.
Also on Wednesday, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea announced that searchers have finished the grim task of scouring the more than 18,000 structures destroyed in the blaze for human remains.
As residents return to their homes, they might still come across bone fragments and should call authorities if they do, Honea said.
The death toll stands at 88, with 196 people missing.
Only residents of the south and east parts of Paradise can return next week, Police Chief Eric Reinbold told a standing-room crowd at Chico City Hall.
After an initial 24-hour period for residents, those areas will then be open to the public.
It could be several weeks before people are allowed back into other parts of town, Reinbold said. The crews that had been working to clean up the south and east will shift their attention to the remaining areas.
“We’re not extending it longer than we need to, or it won’t be a completely safe environment,” Reinbold said.
The repopulation of south and east Paradise will allow traffic to flow through Pentz Road and into Magalia. But bad weather could delay the opening, Honea said.
A storm is expected to dump up to an inch of rain over the burn areas Wednesday night and early Thursday, forecaster Cindy Matthews said. A second system is expected Friday, bringing the risk of mudslides.
Reinbold said people whose homes are still standing can move back in if they like. But he encouraged them to wait until toxic hazards, such as rotting food in refrigerators, are addressed.
People whose homes are in ruins should not try to live there, town officials said. They are drafting an ordinance that will ban living on destroyed properties until all the debris and ash is cleared.
In a town of 26,000 people, only about 1,700 structures are still standing, city officials said. Large swaths of the town have been reduced to rubble. Most residents will return to a pile of ashes.
At a meeting of the Paradise Town Council, officials gave updates on various aspects of what will be a long and complicated recovery, ranging from repairing power lines to financing the city budget in the absence of tax revenue.
Schools will open on Dec. 3 in temporary locations, including Oroville and Chico, said Michelle John, superintendent of the Paradise Unified School District.
By the beginning of the next school year, she said, she hopes that all of the district’s schools will be housed on one large campus in Chico.
John expects about half of her students to return.
“We’re tired, we’re working hard and we look forward to seeing all our students on Monday,” she said.
The areas of Paradise that will be repopulated next week correspond to fire zones 3, 8, and 9 to 14 — roughly, south of Pearson Road and east of Pentz Road.
After the council meeting, James Heumann said he understands why it is taking so long for officials to clean up the area and allow residents to go back. He is in one of the zones where returning is still weeks away.
He and his three daughters all lost their homes in the fire. He has been staying part of the time in Lake Tahoe, where he sometimes works, while 10 other family members cram into one house.
He does not think he will rebuild. At 59, he is too old for the years-long grind — and the Paradise he knew is already lost.
“It’ll never be the same. It’s going to be a new Paradise,” said Heumann, an electrician.
Sheri McVey, 43, lost all her material possessions in the fire — her house, her car, the food truck that paid her bills.
She, too, is in one of the later repopulation zones, which frustrates her.
“If it’s your home, I don’t understand why you can’t go in and look, though I understand there are dangers there,” she said.
She knows there is nothing left. But she said she needs to witness the devastation so she can accept it and move on.