Fire victims recount devastation in Paradise
CHICO — The wind-fueled Camp Fire that started near Paradise, California around 7 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 has become the most destructive fire in California’s history.
On Friday Nov. 9, narrow streets of Paradise were lined with downed power lines, charred-white trees, abandoned vehicles, debris, and orange embers glowing in ashy darkness as dozens of PG&E service trucks, Cal Fire and Butte County sheriff’s searched for survivors.
By Thursday Nov. 15, 56 people were confirmed dead. Victims were found in their vehicles, others in their home or outside.
The fire is thought to have started due to a downed powerline at 6:33 a.m. near Feather River Canyon, according to an PG&E incident report shared with ABC News.
Sacramento Fire Department Capt. Dave Lauchner said there’s no estimated timetable for complete containment. He said the scope of the disaster is unprecedented.
“This one hit so fast and so hard it’s devastating,” he told the Xpress on Saturday. “It’s just devastating to see the destruction it did. People just didn’t have time to react. There was just no time.”
Nineteen-year-old brothers Jonathan and Delante Clark said they saw the smoke two hours before the mandatory evacuation order, told their family members to evacuate and went through Paradise knocking on doors telling people they need to leave.
“The fire came in quick,” Jonathan Clark said. “We went around and said ‘Hey this one is coming through. They haven’t given us warning yet but we’re just looking to buy you some extra time. Start packing — it’s coming through.’”
Delante Clark said they had a bit of extra time because they live in Scott Valley Canyon, one of the first and most damaged areas near Paradise. He said evacuating the town was something he’ll never forget.
“We had a little bit head warning,” Delante said. “It still came pretty fast. So, when we got out of there it was like pitch black darkness…thick smoke.”
Scott Bocast, a Forest Ranch resident who was forced to evacuate, sheltered at The Neighborhood Church in Chico, California, mainly to get food, a blanket, respirator and to get out of the cold.
Bocast said he remembers ash falling like snow, sirens blaring and the darkened sky. But most of all, he said he remembers the barking.
“I heard so many dogs barking, the ones got left behind,” he said. “When I think about it breaks my heart.”
Chico Springs resident Tammy Butler brought her horse trailer to save animals, large and small, who were left behind.
Becka Read, 46, asked Butler to rescue her friend’s dog, that was left in a kennel with a small bowl of water inside her home in Paradise. Her friend was forced to evacuate further away after falling ill from smoke inhalation.
“I’m scared for everybody,” she said. “The police and fire department are doing what they can. They have a lot going on. I don’t harbor any resentment toward anybody, but it’s just pure chaos right now.”
Neddy Baguio, Paradise resident and SF State alumnus, evacuated with her partner and two children on Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, she tried to drive into Paradise, but was stopped by police roadblocks.
On Friday night, she was in Chico still waiting to find out what remained of her ranch.
“As we were walking out the door there was charred matter actively coming down out of the air,” Baguio told the Xpress. “It was falling on the house and sounded like rain… at that point the sky was nearly black, at the end of our street we could see flames.”
Baguio, whose family has now settled in a Yuba City hotel, said she’s just happy they all escaped unharmed.
“I am fully prepared to accept we have nothing left,” she said. “It’s OK though. I have my family and we are all safe.”
Monday’s incident report states that strong winds made it difficult for the 4,555 emergency responders with 571 engines, 21 helicopters to contain the flames.
In a press meeting on Sunday, Nov. 11, Gov. Jerry Brown requested a major disaster declaration, asking for FEMA to provide aid to the 149,000 displaced residents.
The Camp Fire has spread South to Oroville, and Northeast to Concow and still threatens 15,500 structures in small towns throughout the Sierra foothills due strong winds that picked up Saturday night and have continued into Monday, according to the incident update report.
Red Cross Communications and Marketing Director Steve Walsh said the Camp Fire is unprecedented because of the wind conditions.
“I’ve been to four fires in last year and a half in California, and this fire was completely different than any I’ve ever seen,” Walsh said. “It was 1,000 acres [on Wednesday], and now it’s up to like 90,000. That’s crazy.”
While helping evacuees at The Neighborhood Church, Walsh said most people at the shelter did not have time gather their belongings.
“People came with nothing,” he said. “Literally whatever they were wearing is all they have.”
Residents could stay in any of the shelters for two weeks or more, Walsh said.
Red Cross volunteer Mckayla Doser had previously helped people who were displaced by the Carr Fire. She said the Camp Fire was a more personal experience for her, even though she’s not a Paradise resident.
“This one is more personal, closer to home,” she said. “And it affected more people because it burned down a whole town.”
In town on Saturday and Sunday, sirens rang through the toxic haze of ash as emergency crews clear roads of downed power lines, buildings rubble and abandoned vehicles.
Hundreds of fire engines, Cal Fire emergency response trucks, tow trucks, CHP, PG&E service vehicles drove up and down Skyway into Paradise, Magalia and beyond to put out fires.
Blackened-chimney stacks loomed above the scorched foundations of what once supported thousands of families in a town of 26,680 people.
“Our house is gone, our neighbor’s houses are gone,” Jonathan Clark said as he stood at the crossroad of Skyway and Honey Run Road waiting for police to let in animal rescue volunteers. “Our whole neighborhood is basically flattened.”
Despite their loss, both brothers volunteered with Butler to go rescue the horses they left behind and any other animals they come across.
“Right now we are trying to get up into town and check if our horse is still OK,” Delante Clark said. “She didn’t want to get into the trailer, so we had to let her go.”