Paradise was once a place to escape to. Located in the Sierra foothills, the rural enclave and surrounding communities were getaways from the Sacramento Valley and the cities of Chico and Oroville.
But what drew residents to Paradise — a place to disappear amid winding roads, hills and ravines above the Feather River and Butte Creek — has made the job of reconnecting with friends and relatives in the aftermath of the devastating Camp fire all the more challenging.
As emergency crews and cadaver dogs sift through rubble and ashes, message boards put up at shelters, evacuation centers and churches listing the names of the missing grow crowded with plaintive appeals, reminiscent of the postings found in Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Spotty cell coverage and downed power lines blocking access to burn areas have made the task more difficult.
For Blake Bellairs, the challenge of reconnecting with his brother, Josh, meant overcoming the years they had not spoken to each other.
Josh lived in Paradise, and Bellairs had called friends and former girlfriends, scoured social media for mentions of Josh and contacted local television stations, authorities and the jail, all in vain. One friend heard that Josh got a ride through Magalia, six miles northeast of Paradise, but there was no confirmation.
Having exhausted these approaches, Bellairs resorted to plastering his Ford truck with his message, along with a phone number, written with glass chalk he’d purchased at Walmart.
Missing Josh Bellairs
With more than 52,000 people chased from their homes by the blaze, authorities are trying to put a number on individuals who are missing. A Facebook page lists 105 people, and on Monday, authorities reported 223 people whose whereabouts have yet to be confirmed.
Bellairs was hoping evacuees who had arrived in Chico might be able to help. He and his girlfriend had driven from their home in Medford, Ore., to help his mother and stepfather, who had been burned out by the Camp fire.
"I just want to know he's all right,” Bellairs said as he stood near his truck with tears in his eyes.
Bellairs and his family are trying to avoid thinking the worst. They are staying in the local shelter but will soon be moving on due to his stepfather’s health’s issues. They hope Josh is camping somewhere. Maybe, they tell themselves, he just doesn't have cell service.
But as days pass, their hope grows slim. Maybe he didn’t get the warning.
"That's the fear," said Bellairs’ stepfather, Charles Deaderick, "that he didn't find out in time."
On Thursday, as embers blew into Paradise in advance of the wind-driven wildfire that swept through these hills, residents had little notice and only a few minutes to gather pets and belonging and flee. By the time the fire moved on, it had destroyed more than 6,000 homes and 250 commercial buildings in less than 24 hours.
Many displaced residents of the scattered rural communities between Redding and Sacramento have taken to posting messages on whiteboards at the Neighborhood Church of Chico and at Bidwell Junior High School, a better alternative than waiting helplessly, fearing the worst.
The messages range from reassuring (“I’m OK, don’t worry about me”) to urgent.
Looking for Julian Binstock and his dog Jack, evacuated Nov. 8 from Feather Canyon Retirement Community in Paradise CA to avoid the #CampFire. Please help us find him.
One woman was looking for her mother: “Needs heart medicine and a pacemaker.”
Paradise resident Jayne Keith, who lost her house in the fire and had taken refuge with family members at a hotel an hour away in Red Bluff, visited the Neighborhood Church on Tuesday to get dog food, blankets and pajamas. Peering at the board, she wrote down the phone number of someone looking for Barbara Hayes.
A woman with the last name “Hayes” was staying down the road from her hotel, but Keith paused, fretting about the name.
“I think it’s spelled differently,” she said.
Red Cross volunteers are also handing out forms at shelters in Chico for people to fill out and declare that they were safe.
For 16-year-old Abigail Bell of Paradise, Thursday was both terrifying and never ending. Her uncle was missing. The two live together and are so close that he calls her his daughter and she calls him her dad.
When the town started to burn, Abigail was with a neighbor and managed to escape to a friend’s house in Marysville, 50 miles south. Her uncle, Darrell Medford, 66, was at their home on Hayes Lane. He was taking a nap but woke in time to escape and get out of harm.
Abigail tried to reach Medford, but the fire had reached their house and the phone line was dead.
Listening to reports of the mounting casualties amid the loss of their town, and not knowing if her uncle had made it out, Bell grew frantic.
That night, however, in a phone call with her cousin, she learned that Medford was safe. She started to cry.
It was an “absolutely gut-wrenching” experience, Abigail said.
Since then, Medford has purchased a cellphone and has been talking to his niece every day. He’s relieved, knowing that she’s safe, and considers himself lucky to have memorized her phone number weeks before the fire.
“I miss the heck out of her,” he said. “All I know is I want her with me.”
Abigail and Medford are trying to reunite. He spent a few nights with a family member and Monday night in the parking lot of the Neighborhood Church. His insurance company is offering to put him up in a hotel.
They are thinking they will meet there, the sooner the better.