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California Fire Death Toll Climbs in Paradise, Where Residents Were Burned Alive in Cars

Workers fanned out across the cinders, looking for those who didn’t escape the inferno that transformed this town into a wasteland.

Allen Young11.18.18 11:57 AM ET

PARADISE, California—Eric Smith walked up to the pile of rubble where his childhood home used to be. Stunned and exhausted, the 36-year-old slumped over the front gate and removed his respirator mask.

“It looks like a bomb went off,” he said. “My childhood has burnt down.”

Walking on the northern outskirts of Paradise, where the Camp Fire has destroyed nearly 13,000 structures and killed 76 and counting, Smith recounted how he had spent time inside each of his neighbor’s homes, many of which had collapsed in flames.

“We got a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “The people that live here are all heart. Paradise is my heart.”

It’s been 11 days since 46,000 people were evacuated from California’s most destructive wildfire on record. Local officials said on Saturday that the Camp Fire has incinerated 149,000 acres in Northern California and is only 55 percent contained.

Smith said his mom and stepfather were able to evacuate in time, but his uncle, one of the many senior citizens in this town of 27,000 people about 90 miles north of Sacramento, remains among the 1,276 missing persons (authorities have noted that the tally fluctuates wildly and may contain duplicates). Nonetheless, Smith said he didn’t blame local authorities for the panicked evacuation.

“How could they have organized it?” Smith asked rhetorically. “The fire was burning 80 football fields a minute. There’s one way in and out of here. I don’t know how anyone could have organized anything.”

Smith was referring to Skyway Blvd., a four-lane highway that runs down the middle of Paradise and serves as its central corridor. The city has a total of four roads that served as evacuation routes.

The first evacuation order in Paradise was issued at 7:46 a.m., about an hour after the first report of a fire, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday, but only a quarter of the town received the warning. Paradise leaders had previously divided into quadrants to be evacuated one at a time. The rest of the town wasn’t alerted for nearly another hour.

As residents fled, some were burned alive as they escaped on foot or in their cars. No one knows how many didn’t get out in time. Five additional bodies were recovered on Saturday as law-enforcement officers and search-and-rescue volunteers assess what few structures remain and search for victims.

On Saturday, Cal Fire officials went house-to-house inspecting damage. Search-and-rescue teams, clad in white hazmat jumpsuits and yellow helmets, drew crosses with orange spray paint in front of residences and on cars. Vehicles were also adorned with yellow and pink flags to indicate those surveyed for survivors and the deceased.

“Lots of people died in their cars,” said a Cal Fire worker.

Residents who escaped were forced to find shelter and continue breathing the world’s worst air. Local authorities have not yet allowed residents to return to their homes, and they offered no timetable on Saturday for that reunion.

“We have to do due diligence in searching areas for human remains,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea at a Saturday evening press conference. “This is a daunting task.”

Honea couldn’t say whether the fire claimed higher numbers of victims in any particular neighborhoods of Paradise. In reflecting on the Nov. 8 evacuation, the sheriff told The Daily Beast it would be impossible to have evacuated an entire city without “chaos and difficulty.”

“That said,” he added, “As people were coming down, it was as orderly as could be under such a very, very frightening situation...We were able to save tens of thousands of lives.”

A three-mile stretch of Skyview Blvd, the main artery out of the fire’s path, remains a wasteland of thick smoke and demolished buildings. Some businesses along the central corridor—a mix of provincial mom and pop stores, antique shops and auto parts suppliers—are destroyed beyond recognition. Public utility workers collect power lines that are still littered across roads. Traffic lights are disconnected. Access to the town is restricted to a limited few, including firefighters, law enforcement officers, animal rescue volunteers and journalists.

“Just be careful,” the Cal Fire worker cautioned. “Anything that can fall down, might fall down.”

President Trump visited on Saturday and described a sense of shock by the “total devastation.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Trump said. “Hopefully this will be the last of these, because it was a really, really bad one.”

Christopher Morton and wife Jessica drove from house to house on Saturday leaving out food and water for cats, working as volunteers for the North Valley Animal Disaster Group. They carried a list of addresses and front door keys provided by residents who were forced to flee without their pets.

“They give us permission to go into their homes,” Christopher Morton said. “The cats are usually in the bedroom, under the bed. That’s like their spot.”

He added, “It’s been a week [since the evacuation], so most of the burned or wounded animals would be dead at this point.”

Dogs had been picked up throughout the week and sent to shelters or veterinarians, depending on their condition, Morton said. Other abandoned animals included goats and chickens.

Displaced residents gathered at a Starbucks in the neighboring city of Chico to reflect on the catastrophe and discuss next steps. Nanci Stiggi, a 40-year resident of Paradise, and her husband Doug had received word that their home was destroyed. They are staying with their daughter and haven’t determined whether they will return to Paradise.

“Many want to rebuild. Others don’t want to be here. We’re not going to make a decision in such a high emotional state,” she said. “When we return, we hope to see if anything is left in the ashes. We’re hoping for anything.”  

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