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Death toll rises as wildfire spreads in Butte County

November 12, 2018

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Death toll rises as wildfire spreads in Butte County

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.

By Monday morning, 31 people were confirmed killed in the fire, according to the Independent. Victims were found in their vehicles, others in their home or outside.

The fire has burned 113,000 acres in Butte County and destroyed more than 6,700 homes and 260 businesses — leveling nearly the entire town of Paradise, California.

On Friday night, downed power lines, charred-white trees, abandoned vehicles, debris and ash littered the narrow two-way streets of Paradise. Orange embers glowed in ashy darkness as dozens of PG&E service trucks, Cal Fire and Butte County sheriff’s searched for survivors.

According to a Monday morning Camp Fire Incident Update report, the fire is only 25 percent contained.

Sacramento Fire Department Capt. Dave Lauchner said there’s no estimated timetable for complete containment.

Lauchner said the scope of the disaster is unprecedented. He’s heard countless stories of harrowing evacuations.

“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.”

The incident report states that strong winds have 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 Seirra foothills due strong winds that picked up Saturday night and have continued into Monday, according to the incident update report.

Sacramento Fire Department Capt. Dave Lauchner (left) answers questions from a concerned Paradise, Calif. resident as he points to a map of the region (in red) scorched by the Camp Fire in Chico, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 10. (Lorenzo Morotti/Golden Gate Xpress)

Butte County officials called for a mandatory evacuation on Thursday morning.

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.”

A downed powerline could be the cause of the fire that started near Feather River Canyon at 6:33 a.m., according to an PG&E incident report shared with ABC News.

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 Thursday], and now, [Friday], it’s up to like 90,000. That’s crazy.”

While helping evacuees at The Neighborhood Church on Notre Dame Way, he 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.”

He said elderly people make up most of the residents using the shelters set up in Oroville, Chico, Chester and Butte County Fairgrounds.

Donations are being used to fund the blankets, beds, food, hygiene supplies and any other necessities evacuees need until they can find a place to stay.

Residents could stay in any of the shelters for two weeks or more, Walsh said.

He said people who have lost everything can apply for Red Cross financial assistance or file with their insurance companies, which had tents set up in front of the church.

An abnadonned vehicle is charred after being caught up in the Camp Fire on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)

Red Cross volunteer Mckayla Doser, who is not from Paradise, helped people who were displaced by the Carr Fire. She said the Camp Fire was a more personal experience for her.

“This one is more personal, closer to home,” she said. “And it affected more people because it burned down a whole town.”

Walsh said most people who are now sleeping in their cars, on cots at shelters or hotels have never experienced something like this before.

Scott Bocast, a Forest Ranch resident included in the mandatory evacuation, went to The Neighborhood Church for shelter.

Bocast said most of the beds were being used by older people who needed it more than he did.

He said he mainly came to the church to get food, a blanket, respirator and to stay out of the cold.

He said his house is intact because it is a few miles North of Paradise and is separated by Highway 32. But he feels terrible for people who don’t know what remains of their homes.

“I think a lot of people walking around here are still in shock,” he said. “You don’t see the emotion so much. Everyone is being so strong because they are thinking ‘It’s not me. My home is still there.’”

The day he evacuated, 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 as he waited outside The Neighborhood Church in Chico. “When I think about it breaks my heart.”

The fire spread so quickly that many evacuees had no time to save their animals.

Saturday morning, California Highway Patrol was blocking residents and animal rescue volunteers into Paradise at Skyway and Honey Run Road until emergency crews cleared the debris.

Inside the the town, sirens ring through the toxic haze of ash as emergency crews clear roads of debris — mostly downed power lines, rubble from buildings and abandoned vehicles.

Before being allowed in later that day, people anxiously awaited for the roads to be cleared so they can begin searching for animals.

A PG&E power pole hangs over a street after being damaged by the Camp Fire in Butte County on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)

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 the 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 on Notre Dame Way, he 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.”

He said elderly people make up most of the residents using the shelters set up in Oroville, Chico, Chester and Butte County Fairgrounds.

Donations are being used to fund the blankets, beds, food, hygiene supplies and any other necessities evacuees need until they can find a place to stay.

Residents could stay in any of the shelters for two weeks or more, Walsh said.

He said people who have lost everything can apply for Red Cross financial assistance or file with their insurance companies, which had tents set up in front of the church.

Chico residents wait in a line for pizza and other food at The Neighborhood Church in Chico on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)

Tammy Butler, a Chico Springs resident, said she was not directly affected by the fire, but she came with her horse trailer to save animals, large and small, who were left behind.

She said her and other animal rescue volunteers from as far as Sacramento came to Paradise because of the magnitude and speed of the Camp Fire was unprecedented.

Two 19-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 camp in quick,” Jonathan 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 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.”

Saturday and Sunday, 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.

While some commercial buildings on Skyway were left standing, most of the town’s residential areas were nearly unrecognizable. Blackened-chimney stacks loomed above the scorched foundations of what once supported thousands of families in a town of 26,680 people.

A Chico resident who declined to provide a name searches through clothes in a emergency preparation pile at The Neighborhood Church in Chico on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)

“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 on Saturday. “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.”

Becka Read, 46, said she gave Butler and other animal rescue volunteers her information so they could rescue her close-friend’s dog, that was left in a kennel with a small bowl of water inside her home in Paradise.

Read said her friend does not know the condition of her home or her dog because she was forced to evacuate further away because she became ill from smoke inhalation.

She said she is here because she is physically able to help out during this tragedy.

“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.”

An American Red Cross volunteer brings additional supplies for people displaced by the Butte County fires in nearby Paradise and other cities at The Neighborhood Church in Chico on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)
American Red Cross and other emergency services laid out clothing for those displaced by the Butte County fires in nearby Paradise and other cities at The Neighborhood Church in Chico on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. (Christian Urrutia/Golden Gate Xpress)