‘Holding out hope for something.’ Camp Fire evacuees return to Paradise, sift through ruins

‘Now we have nothing. We’re free,’ says Paradise homeowner

Paradise home owners, renter return to find homes in ashes on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 after Camp Fire destroyed them.
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Paradise home owners, renter return to find homes in ashes on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 after Camp Fire destroyed them.

Jennifer Duran found her late father’s coin collection, badly charred, and a painting her son made in school, blown 30 feet away from their house.

Kelsea Woodman found her daughter’s Christmas tree ornament, the remains of a deck of cards — and the cable TV bill, safely tucked inside her mailbox.

Hundreds of residents made their way back into Paradise on Wednesday, the first time they were allowed into to the ruined town since the Camp Fire roared through on Nov. 8. They combed through ashes, searched for keepsakes and reflected on what they’d lost.

They knew their houses had been destroyed, either by word of mouth or pictures posted online, but to see what was left packed an emotional punch.

“I don’t even know where to begin,” Alicia Moore, 50, said as she and her husband Jim rummaged through the rubble of their 1,500-square-foot home on Pentz Road. “It’s unrecognizable.”

A half-mile south, Duran, clad in a white jump suit and heavy boots, found a few other items along with the coin collection, but was disappointed that she couldn’t find her husband’s Air Force medals.

“I was holding out hope for something,” said the mother of four. “Now I just have to hold onto rebuilding. ... It’s been our house since 2011.”

Mostly, though, Duran was satisfied to see with her own eyes what she had previously seen only in photos. “I needed to come up here,” said Duran, 37. She and her family are staying with friends in Corning.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office began allowing evacuees back into the Camp Fire area, zone by zone, on Sunday. Wednesday was the first time residents were allowed to return to Paradise, though only those living on the east side of town, along Pentz Road.

Residents had been clamoring for a chance to go back since shortly after the deadliest fire in California history erupted, putting Sheriff Kory Honea in the awkward position of having to deny access on the grounds of public safety. Even on Wednesday, residents returning to Paradise had to slog their way past PG&E workers and others who are clearing fallen trees and debris from roads.

It was a difficult day, made worse by a cold drizzle. Residents interviewed by The Sacramento Bee said they didn’t fault the sheriff for making them wait.

“If he had let everybody back in (sooner), somebody would have gotten hurt, and then they’d be suing,” Jim Moore said as he and his wife Alicia stared at the ashes of their home.

On the other side of Pentz Road, Woodman sorted through keepsakes at what was left of her home and turned serious as she reflected on why it was important to see her house Wednesday.

“I was anxious about getting up here,” she said. “This was like a closure, driving down your driveway and seeing (the house) gone.”

Her father Kirt, who lost his house as well, added: “It’s kind of like going to a funeral and seeing the open casket with a body.”

The day brought a steady stream of traffic up Pentz Road as people were cleared past a checkpoint meant to keep out all but those who had lived nearby. Residents received white protective suits and blue booties to protect them from toxic materials in the ashes. The suits were eerily similar to the uniforms worn by search-and-rescue crews that were looking for human remains days earlier.

Debbie and Lou Donnelly were among a large group that sought shelter in the parking lot of Feather River Hospital the morning of the fire. That day, they watched as their home of 34 years burned to the ground, just 200 yards from where they stood.

Even knowing in advance that their house was gone couldn’t prepare them for what they saw Wednesday. “I’m just numb,” Debbie Donnelly said, as she and her husband, aided by family members, shoveled wet, heavy sludge to clear a path on their property.

Along the way, they found random objects that survived the fire: a coffee mug with Debbie’s name on it, part of Debbie’s collection of pennies and a black pot. But just about everything else was gone, including a set of ceramic Christmas decorations by artist Thomas Kinkade that Debbie had been collecting for years.

“This was a beautiful place,” she said. “We had no plans of going anywhere else.”

James and Linda Hurt arrived at their home to discover the house and two garages had been leveled. Linda wept as she looked at the twisted remains of a garage that held her husband’s prized 1956 Chevy Nomad, a 1986 Camaro and a Harley Davidson.

The Nomad, once a brilliant sea green, is now rust colored. “Everything you ever had is gone,” James said. “You think maybe you’ll be able to save a couple of things, but it’s all gone.”

Transplants from Ventura County four years ago, the Hurts are considering building a modular home where their house once stood.

“We’ll get over it,” Linda Hurt said. “I’m not the only one who lost everything.”

Although a wildfire may be contained, areas ravaged by fire leave many dangers behind. In this video, emergency officials explain what Paradise and other Butte County residents should keep in mind as they return to their homes in the Camp Fire zone.

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