Fran Shute, 93, left Paradise with one small purse and an extra set of clothes.
Sitting in her daughter’s Clovis home Tuesday, Shute thinks of something her late husband once said of the Northern California town.
“I said, ‘Oh, this is nice, all these trees,’ ” Shute recalls of her first trip to Paradise. “Sid said, ‘It looks like a fire trap to me.’ ”
Fire would nearly trap her there, 28 years after moving into a 1,300-square-foot home in The Plantation, a senior living community in the town.
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Shute had 15 minutes to gather her things Thursday morning after a neighbor alerted her of the fast-moving Camp Fire. She left Paradise as a passenger in her neighbor’s car, a friend’s dog in her lap. The drive to Chico, normally around 15 minutes from Shute’s home, took two hours. The roads were overwhelmed with people trying to escape, although the Camp Fire started only an hour earlier. Shute eventually made it to Sacramento, and then to Clovis.
She left home expecting to return within a couple days of the mandatory evacuation order. She laughs now about remembering to grab lipstick but not a toothbrush. In her purse was also a set of keys, a wallet with a little cash, and one of her checkbooks.
Her expectation of a quick return home soon changed.
“I assumed the worst,” she said of the fire, “but you still have hope.”
That hope is nearly gone. A photo she recently received of her property appears to show her home gone, and a higher-quality image of a neighbor’s property clearly shows nearby homes decimated. Journalists also reported her community destroyed.
“I’m not sad,” Shute said of the destruction. “I’m sorry it happened. But the other survivors are much worse off than I am. I’m sure a lot of them are suffering much more.”
The blaze she escaped has killed at least 48 people and nearly leveled her entire town, which was once home to more than 26,000 people. Hundreds are still missing.
Shute doesn’t want to move back.
Of what she likely lost to fire, old photographs and her artwork – especially a stained glass peacock that hung in one window – are among the toughest losses.
Will she miss her home?
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I think whatever happens I’ll accept it. I just figure it’ll be another phase in my life. I think I’ve had nine lives already. It’s just another phase.”
Her daughter, Sharon File, is in “awe” of her mother’s attitude.
“She’s amazing,” File said. “She is very strong.”
Shute is now staying with File, who works as a real estate appraiser, and her husband, Larry File, a retired insurance agent. The couple say insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds will be enough to get Shute a new place in the Fresno area unless she wants to stay with them in their Clovis home.
“I’m very lucky,” Shute said, “very fortunate, very grateful. Yes, indeed.”
The self-sufficient 93-year-old enjoyed her independent life in Paradise. Her home art studio, where she liked to paint, overlooked a tranquil greenbelt filled with beautiful trees and deer. She volunteered with a local animal shelter, and helped raise money for her community’s library. Everything she needed was within a three-mile drive in her 1995 Lincoln Continental, which remains in Paradise.
Shute worked as a receptionist for The Bee’s editorial department into the 1960s before working for her husband, Sid Shute, in his Clovis optometrist office. The couple moved to Colusa, north of Sacramento, after Sid retired.
Shute moved to Paradise in 1995 after Sid died.
“I don’t think it was paradise to begin with,” Shute said. “We kinda kid about Paradise. It’s warm there, sometimes hotter than Chico. … I don’t think they’ll call it Paradise again. I don’t know what they’ll call it.”
Across the room, her son-in-law, Larry File, says quietly, “Paradise lost.”