Death toll rises to 42 in California’s Camp Fire, making it the deadliest wildfire ever in the state

Death toll rises to 42 in California’s Camp Fire, making it the deadliest wildfire ever in the state

PARADISE, Calif. — The thing about Paradise is that people expected to live out their lives here in the hills. The more than three dozen residents who burned to death — in cars, in homes, on foot — just imagined those lives would last longer.

A town meant for retirement has burned to the ground, its surviving residents scattered across Northern California in shelters and hotels and family homes far from the flames. Driving the five-mile length of the town, under an unsettling orange sun, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a half dozen buildings untouched by fire.

“You get out of the way,” said Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain who on Monday was dispatching rescue crews to search for the more than 200 people still un­accounted for — house-by-house work more likely to turn up a body than a survivor. “Then you come back and pick up the pieces.”

There are many pieces to be picked up here. What they will eventually assemble is an open question and will determine whether Paradise — population 27,000, but empty now — remains a town at all.

The Camp Fire roared west Thursday morning through the Feather River Canyon on the edge of this town, blown by cool ­50 mph winds that pushed flames so quickly that many residents were simply overwhelmed while trying to escape. The death toll rose to 42 Monday evening — making it the deadliest wildfire in state history — with the discovery of 13 more bodies, including 10 in Paradise, as the grim work of identifying remains — employing rescue workers and cadaver dogs — continued in the ruins.

Smoke lingers through the valley near Skyway in Chico, Calif., on Sunday. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

The fire also stands as the most destructive in California history. More than 6,000 buildings have been destroyed, the vast majority of them homes. The Camp Fire tops the Tubbs Fire in its devastation, and the Tubbs Fire, which burned down large swaths of Santa Rosa, set the record less than a year ago.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has called the intensifying fires, which include two others still burning uncontained just north of Los Angeles, the state’s “new abnormal.” President Trump has blamed forest management, even though many of the state’s forests are managed by the federal government. On Monday, Trump approved a disaster declaration for California, freeing up federal aid he once threatened to withhold.

The burning of Paradise, though, carries a particular cruelty given its demographics. This was an old town with an old population. The median age was 50, more than a decade higher than state and national averages. Retirement communities and health care are the bedrock of the Paradise economy.

Along a half-mile stretch of Buschmann Road, four “senior communities,” with names such as Atria Paradise and The Plantation, have been gutted by fire. Many other retirement neighborhoods were mobile-home parks, and those are no more.

Five people died along Edgewood Lane, where small flames still crackled from a blown transformer, from charred holes around foundations, from around the bases of telephone poles now suspended from the lines they once supported.

Everything is dangling or tilting or burning here. Only the chimneys stand straight and tall, strange new landmarks amid the ashes in a state where fire season no longer has an end.

The mobile-home park on Edgewood where some died on a dead-end street still smolders, twisted metal and cement platforms the only real evidence it existed at all. On Sunday, rescue workers pulled two bodies from the nearby Holly Hills Mobile Estates.

Crime tape marks where the remains of a fire victim were found at a trailer park in Paradise. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)
The task of identifying remains in Paradise continues. (Mason Trinca for The Washington Post)

For five days, Sol Bechtold has been searching for his 75-year-old mother, Joanne Caddy.

Bechtold, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said he called her late Thursday, but the phone lines were down. She lives just down the road from here in Magalia.

He has been watching live news broadcasts and visiting shelters, 15 of them so far. He has asked sheriff deputies to check on her. He has made fliers. But he has not found his mother.

“She’s been there for 52 years of my life, and I felt like I could do nothing,” Bechtold said. “Given that she’s homebound, the worst goes through your mind. But I couldn’t believe that was the end. You have to believe that she got out and ran and someone picked her up.”

The ferocity of the blaze was matched by its speed, with windblown embers racing forward of the fireline and creating new ones, often ahead of predictions and taking residents by surprise.

The Butte County Office of Emergency Management issued warnings as the fire swept into the canyons, still filled with smoke. But officials chose to alert only those who had opted into the warning system rather than employing a wider broadcast used in Amber alerts.

t is not yet known whether those who died received the alerts, and officials have said the decision aimed to avoid a panicked evacuation that might have included people who did not need to evacuate.

There were also concerns about the warnings Sonoma County issued before the Tubbs Fire, namely whether they were sent early and widely enough. Conaty, the Cal Fire captain, said he was in Santa Rosa, and “this matches and exceeds what happened there.”

“It was just so fast, a 200-foot wall of flames coming at you,” he said. “No amount of water puts that out.”

The cause of the fire has not been determined. But utility company PG&E has told state regulators that it was having trouble with power lines not far from Paradise in the days before the fire began.

The utility, whose equipment was found responsible for sparking a number of last year’s wine-country fires, sought a law this year to free it from “strict liability” for blazes caused by its equipment. The state legislature declined to pass the bill, and PG&E has said it could face dire financial problems if it continues to have to pay out billions of dollars each year in fire-related damages.

Rebuilding Paradise, if it is possible at all, will be an enormously expensive and long-term task.

The Safeway is gone along Skyway Road, the Foster’s Freeze badly damaged except for the sign that continues to read, “Welcome to Paradise.”

Hundreds of cars and trucks have been torched, some simply abandoned by the roadside, resting on rims with the tires burned away. Despite the limited alerts, traffic snarled along the few roads in and out of Paradise, and at least seven people died in their cars trying to flee.

Boats on backyard trailers are now just shreds of fiberglass. Some schools have burned, and the Church of Christ, at the corner of Pearson and Sawmill, is one of many here destroyed by the flames.

A little farther along Pearson are the ruins of Styles by Dawn, a beauty shop, only the front-yard sign still standing with its happy welcome to walk-ins. The cement bus stop built by the local Lions Club survived.

Brad Weldon survived, too, despite the odds. The only real sound in Paradise on Monday was the rustle of a stiff, cold wind in the pines — and Weldon’s sound system, blaring classic rock.

Weldon has lived in Paradise for 40 years, the past five in a home on a rambling hillside amid oaks and pines. His boat sits out back, and on the side of the house is a small fenced-in garden, where pomegranates hang from a tree.

The neighborhood around him, right in the center of Paradise, burned to the last house. But he remained in his with his 90-year-old mother, Norma, who is blind and refused to go.

“She wasn’t going to leave, so we didn’t have much choice,” said Weldon, a retired general contractor with a “Dazed and Confused” T-shirt on as he cleaned up around the house. “It was stay and fight it or get burned out.”

The town water system quit a few days into the blaze, and Weldon began pumping water from his aboveground swimming pool into five-gallon buckets. He and a friend, Mick, put sprinklers on the roof, cleaned the gutters and cleared as much potential fuel away from the house.

Then they turned to the buckets, dousing parts of the property as the fire neared. All around his home are charred ground and the burned-down houses of his neighbors, who left soon after the sky glowed orange over the town of Pulga to the east on Thursday morning.

“I thought we were going to be just fine, then everything around us caught on fire,” said Weldon, who did not receive an alert on his phone but said he didn’t need one to know the fire was close and moving fast.

He remains in his home — without phone service, water or electricity. He’s running low on gasoline for the generator that was powering his sound system as he worked. His chief concern now is looters, who he said have been roaming around the back of his property. He has a 12-gauge shotgun for protection.

“We’re still here,” he said.

Lindsey Bever in Washington contributed to this report.

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