‘We’ve lost it all’: California wildfire’s fury overwhelmed fire-wary residents in Paradise

Remains of the day: Ashes and rubble remain Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 after the Camp Fire devastated Paradise, California on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

Four times in 20 years, Cinda Larimer has evacuated her home in Paradise. Four times, she’s watched anxiously as smoke and flames filled the skies over this small mountain town, this cool slice of Northern California where the wildlife is abundant, the Feather River runs clear and cold, and the Ponderosa pines tower into the sky.

Three times, Larimer has packed up all her valuables, left, and come back. The threatening fire spared the town, and life moved on.

Not Thursday.

Fanned by unusually high winds blowing down the Feather River Canyon, the Camp Fire blasted through the town, an inferno that consumed homes and pizzerias and mobile home parks, erasing churches and houses and cars.

Thursday was the first time Larimer didn’t bother taking her valuables with her.

And the Camp Fire took everything she owns.

All she now has left is a minivan stuffed with four cats, a turtle and her dog named Buddy.

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“We’ve lost it all,” Larimer, 53, said as ash from the burning town drifted onto her shoulders about five miles outside of Paradise. “My mother, she evacuated and only took two outfits. Why? For the same reason: We all thought we’d be going home today.”.

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No one is going home to Paradise today, or for days to come. Many people have nothing to return to. At least six people are confirmed dead in what became, within minutes, one of the most devastating wildfires in California history. Authorities say as many as 2,000 structures have been lost in what was once a picturesque foothills town, based on initial assessments.

Firefighters on the ground say that number will inevitably rise as they confirm the whereabouts of the town’s approximately 27,000 residents, some of whom fled on foot after getting caught in a fatal traffic jam.

For decades, residents of Paradise have avoided the worst wildfires, the kind that destroy entire communities. Fires have nipped at the town’s fringes over the years, most notably the 2008 Humboldt Fire, which destroyed 87 homes and more than 100 vehicles.

This year’s Camp Fire did that kind of damage in minutes. And then it kept going, burning down the hills toward Chico and filling the skies with smoke visible all the way to Sacramento, nearly 100 miles away.

Richard Norton, 33, said that maybe Paradise residents had gotten a little complacent, maybe a little too comfortable to with the idea that wildfires burn homes elsewhere in California, but not here in this picturesque town where most folks know their neighbors and generations live side-by-side. Both Norton and his daughter were born in the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, a hospital complex that suffered significant damage during the blaze.

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Norton was getting ready to launch a firewood business – ironic, he knows – when the Camp Fire blasted through. Few of his friends recall getting any emergency alerts, although they remember utility workers warning them in the days before that a windstorm was coming and they might have their power shut off as a precaution. Other devastating California wildfires have been sparked by downed power lines in windstorms, and lawmakers have ordered utilities to get more aggressive about shutting them down before the winds come.

But on Thursday morning those winds came, howling with a vengeance through the twisting streets of Paradise, whipping up the pine needles and tossing small branches that Larimer dodged as she drove her newspaper delivery route. She saw the first signs of smoke early and started calling and texting friends: Watch out, there’s a fire burning nearby.

Standing in a supermarket parking lot with a handful of neighbors on the outskirts of Chico, Norton and his friends traded escape stories: cars burned down to their metal shells, campers abandoned on the side of the road, people running through flames to escape, their melted sneakers evidence of just how close they came to death.

“It’s where I want to be,” Norton said. “I’m going back if I can.”.

Firefighters have been reluctant to criticize evacuees, but say the large number of cars burned by the fire suggests residents failed to heed warnings until it was too late.

On Friday, dozens of burned-out cars and SUVs lined the main road out of Paradise known simply as Skyway, stripped down to their bare metal by flames that melted aluminum engine blocks, vaporized plastic door handles and exploded their windows. In the afternoon, a small army of firefighters and emergency workers picked their way through the debris, small fires burning in trees and in the ruins of houses. Power lines littered the streets, and heavy smoke blocked out the sun.

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Looking back up the mountain to where Paradise sits, Mary Etter, 54, wondered if she would ever get to go back.

For so long, she said, Paradise was the perfect place to live. Not too hot, not too cold. Not burdened with big-city problems, but big enough for people to find jobs and make a living in a town where housing costs were still low. Etter, a home-health aid, helped evacuate her longtime neighbors from their mobile home park, which she believed has been utterly destroyed.

“I’m happy to be here, happy to be here and alive,” she said. “The material things, we can replace those. They’ll be replaced. You can’t replace your life or your friends.”.

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