Brad Weldon has lived in Paradise his entire life, and wasn’t about to leave his home or his blind, 90-year-old mother behind when the Camp Fire hit.
And he’s not going to leave now that the fire is gone, though not much is left of the town he remembers.
When the flames came up to his neighborhood in the central part of Paradise, Weldon grabbed a garden hose and beat back the blaze. When the hose line cut out, he started throwing buckets of water, five gallons at a time. His home was spared, but everything around him was wiped out.
Two weeks later, Weldon is still at his house, one of a small group of self-proclaimed “mountain boys” who have defied evacuation orders and are surviving on meat stored in their generator-powered freezers, bagged lunches dropped off by PG&E crews and supplies provided by a mysterious band of volunteers that Weldon calls “the redneck underground.”
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Under the first clear sky in more than a week, Weldon was busy Tuesday constructing a small structure to shelter his generator before rain arrived in Paradise this week. His mom, Norma, rested inside the house.
He said he has no plans on going anywhere, and he will only leave once he’s convinced he will be able to get back.
“I’m a mountain boy, I’ve got everything I need,” he said. “I understand (the police) are worried, but I’ve been here my whole life.”
The Camp Fire displaced thousands of residents in Northern California’s Butte County, destroyed more than 13,000 homes and killed at least 85 people. It is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, leaving nearly the entire towns of Paradise, Magalia and other foothill communities in ruins.
Weldon estimated that fewer than a dozen residents have refused to leave and remain in their homes, not daring to venture out in fear that the authorities will order them off the ridge. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said his deputies won’t arrest people who are legitimately in town — but as long as evacuation orders are in place, authorities won’t let anyone back inside the town if they cross official police check points to go out.
“I can’t see myself sitting in a shelter, day after day, with sick people and screaming kids all around me,” said Lyndon McAfee, another of those toughing it out behind the lines.
McAfee sought shelter for days in the twisted metal remains of a shed in a canyon just outside Paradise, cooking a chicken he killed to survive, before walking to Weldon’s home.
“This is my home, Paradise, man,” he said. “I love this place.”
Stewart Nugent lives less than a mile from Weldon. His wife evacuated when the fire tore onto their dead end street, but Nugent stayed to fight the blaze. The lid of a propane tank fell from the sky onto his lawn. Ammunition stored in nearby homes kept exploding. Six hours into his vigil, the wooden fence leading up to his home burned and his neighbor’s home was destroyed. Nugent decided he’s stayed too long, but it was too late to get out.
“I got carried away,” he said.
A sheriff’s deputy eventually picked him up and drove him to a shelter in Chico. But he quickly changed his mind about leaving.
“I woke up and said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” he said. His wife picked him up and drove him to a back road. Nugent snuck back into Paradise on foot, covering more than eight miles of rocky and steep terrain to get to his house. He’s been surviving on canned food. A friend of a neighbor dropped off a case of Coors Light beer and utility workers have provided him pizza and lunches.
Despite his isolation, Nugent has kept his sense of humor. “If my cat starts talking to me,” he said, “I’ll leave.”
The only company Weldon and McAfee have received arrived Saturday afternoon when more than two dozen heavily armed police officers suddenly surrounded the home. A few hundred feet away, President Donald Trump was assessing the damage of the Skyway Villa Mobile Home Park.
“We like Trump,” McAfee said. “But we were pretty pissed he didn’t come over to see us.”
Weldon said he has plenty of food to stay as long as he wants. The underground volunteer group brought him 25 pounds of tri-tip steak, 10 pounds of chicken, rice, beans and vegetables.
“I’m not a survivalist,” Weldon said Tuesday, “I’m a survivor.”
This story has been updated on Nov. 25 to reflect a correction in the death toll of the Camp Fire. Authorities earlier erroneously reported the number of fatalities as 87. The correct number as of Nov. 25 is 85.