Paradise lost after fire consumes northern California town

A thick, yellow haze hung in the air, giving the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day. Some of the “majestic oaks” the town touts on its website still have fires burning in their trunks. Thick wooden posts holding up guardrails continued to burn.

An evacuation order Thursday set off a desperate exodus, with frantic motorists getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. Many abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot as the flames bore down on all sides.

“The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled-up windows,” said Rita Miller, who fled Paradise with her mother, who is disabled.

The town, situated on a ridge between two valleys, was a popular retirement community, raising concerns about elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing.

On the outskirts of town, Patrick Knuthson, a fourth-generation resident, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there — his and a neighbour’s.

“The fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone,” Knuthson said.

He and neighbours used a backhoe to create a fire line, determined not to lose his house again.

“I lost my home in 2008, and it’s something you can’t really describe until you go through it,” said Knuthson, who battled flames 8 feet high or taller as strong winds whipped hot embers around him.

He worked so long in the flames and smoke that he needed to use oxygen Thursday night at his home, but he refused to leave. On Friday, Knuthson was covered from head to toe in black soot. His tiny town will never be the same, he said. The bucolic country landscape dotted with bay and oak trees will take years to recover.

In the town’s central shopping area, there was little left but rubble.

St. Nicolas Church still stands, a rare exception. The nearby New Life church is gone. An unblemished Burger King sign rises above a pile of charred rubble. Only blackened debris remains behind the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant sign touting its sushi. Seven burned out Mercedes chassis are all that’s left of Ernst Mercedes Specialist lot. City Hall survived. But the Moose Lodge and Chamber of Commerce buildings didn’t.

The town’s 100-bed hospital is still standing, but two of its smaller buildings, including an outpatient clinic, are flattened. The Adventist Feather River Hospital evacuated its 60 patients, but some were forced back by clogged roads. All of them eventually made it out.

On the outskirts of Paradise, Krystin Harvey lost her mobile home. She described a town rich with historical charm, until a day ago.

“It was an old country town. It had the old buildings lined up along the walkway,” she said. “Almost all businesses were locally owned and included an assortment of antique shops, thrift stores, small restaurants, two bars and lots of churches.”

Harvey wondered if the town’s traditions would survive. The town was famous for the discovery of a 54-pound gold nugget in the 1800s, which eventually prompted a festival known as Gold Nugget Days. The highlight of the festival is a parade that features a Gold Nugget Queen.

“My daughter’s going out for the gold nugget queen this year,” said Harvey, then she paused. “Well, it’s been going for 100 years, but we don’t know — there’s no town now.”

People in Paradise, like so many in California, have become accustomed to wildfires, and many said they were well-prepared. They kept their gutters clean, some kept pumps in their swimming pools and had fire hoses. But the ferocity and speed of this blaze overwhelmed those preparations.

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.

Just 160 kilometres north of Paradise, the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history hit in July and August and was also one of the earliest. Called the Carr Fire, near Redding, it killed eight people, burned about 1,100 homes and consumed 927 square kilometres before it was contained.

Paradise town council member Melissa Schuster lost her 16-acre Chapelle de L’Artiste retreat, a posh property with a chapel, pond and pool. But Friday she was clinging to two furry glimmers of hope: Shyann and Twinkle Star Heart.

“Our llamas,” she said. “Somehow they made it through.”

Schuster said they stopped trying to hook up a trailer for the animals and fled with just their three cats on Thursday as fire roared in.

“It’s Paradise,” she said. “It’s always been Paradise, and we will bring it back.”