As firefighters smothered the last embers of the Camp Fire over Thanksgiving weekend, the evacuees who lost all their material possessions clung to what’s truly most valuable — one another.
Among them was Luis Patres, 51, who lived with his family in lower Magalia, California, for about 12 years before the fire took his home.
His entire neighborhood, which bordered the most northern part of Paradise, California, was reduced to twisted metal, rubble and ash by the most destructive and deadly fire in state history.
Patres, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1991, spent nearly two weeks sleeping in hotels, friends’ cars, living rooms and in a tent in the Walmart parking lot with hundreds of other evacuees in Chico.
Over Thanksgiving, Patres, his wife Denise and his two children were at his brother’s home in the city of Citrus Heights in Sacramento County.
“Life goes on,” he said in Spanish. “I’m just glad to be alive and with my family. We can rebuild, I just don’t know when or where.”
Friends and family crammed in the toasty, one-story home, ate Salvadorian tamales, ceviche, deep-fried yuca and oven-roasted turkey as Patres talked about how his family escaped the wind-fueled inferno.
The family was one of the last evacuees to escape on Nov. 8 at around 3 p.m., leading a row of cars down Garland Drive, a one-lane dirt road that twists and turns up the ridge until it hits Highway 32.
“We went up the mountain,” he said. “We couldn’t go into Paradise. It was already destroyed.”
Luis and Denise said they saw smoke earlier in the day but thought it was a storm or a lot of chimney smoke.
They said their phone service and Wi-Fi were shut off and didn’t realize that the fire was moving from Paradise to Magalia until Luis tuned into the police scanner using his radio.
“There were still a lot of people in Magalia who had not left,” Patres told his family in Spanish on Thanksgiving. “They said the police had not come by and tell them to evacuate yet. I said, ‘I’m not waiting for the police. I’m leaving now.’ And that’s when we heard the explosions. They looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’”
They left with nearly nothing.
It took them about five hours to get to Chico because so many people were trying to escape. The drive normally takes about 30 minutes.
According to a Cal Fire public information officer, the missing persons list is now at 249, down from more than 1,000, as more people check-in as safe. According to the Cal Fire Incident Update, the fire killed 85 people and destroyed 13,972 residences and 528 businesses.
Andrew Freeborn, Kern County public information officer, said a rainstorm helped firefighters contain the fire 17 days after the blaze started, but there’s been slow progress in search and rescue efforts overseen by the county Sheriff’s Department.
While many people were allowed to return to their homes in upper Magalia on Saturday, which was mostly untouched by the fire, the Patres family were not allowed past the CHP blockade that was erected only two blocks from their home.
Although most of Magalia has reopened for residents to return to their homes, the Patres home is in the North Pines zone, which was still partially closed as of press time Monday.
“I was nervous this would happen,” Patres said. “I don’t know when they are going to let us back in. [Denise] is crying right now, but we’ll be back.”
Freeborn said the cities of Paradise and Magalia are divided into different zones. Residents will be allowed to return to their homes as soon as PG&E and construction crews clean the roads of downed power lines and rubble.
Patres said he and his family are still going through the FEMA application process.
But even though he and his family want to return to Magalia, Denise said they would only return if they can get the financial help to rebuild.
“Magalia isn’t gone,” Denise said as her husband got ready to drive her and their daughter Liliana to his brother’s house in Sacramento. “It’s just under massive reconstruction.”
Paul and Elizabeth Marc lived on Tranquil Drive in Paradise for two years with their two children. Now the entire neighborhood is gone.
In the early morning of Nov. 8, Paul was returning from his nursing job at Enloe Medical Center when officials stopped him in Skyway and told him to turn back.
He called his wife and told her to evacuate immediately. They were among the first to escape.
Elizabeth, also a nurse at Enloe, said she is grateful they were not desensitized to the fire threat, and quickly got out at 8 a.m. on Skyway.
She said she got to Chico with her kids at 9:30 a.m.
They said the saddest part is losing the sentimental possessions that were passed down by their parents and grandparents, and that were created with their children Francis, 17, and Isabella, 4.
“A part of who we are in this world — our history, our footstep — is burned,” Elizabeth said in an interview with the Xpress. “(Francis) is going to be 18 [years old] in August, and his whole childhood is gone. With (Isabella) we can rebuild. We can take more pictures of her growing up, but for him it’s gone. It’s burned up.”
The family is now staying in a small ranch house surrounded by orchards in Orland, a 30-minute drive from Chico.
Paul said they were among the lucky few to find a place to rent after the Camp Fire displaced thousands of people living in the small towns, nestled in the foothills of the Sierras in Butte County.
Both Paul and Elizabeth returned to work at Enloe Medical Center in Chico on Monday, Nov. 26. Their children also returned to school on Monday.