PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) - Lovingly placed statues of a family of deer still mark the entrance to Mare Reasons’ house in Paradise, California, but her woodland home was so thoroughly devoured in the state’s deadliest wildfire that only an iron bed and an antique stove remain intact above the rubble.
Like many residents of this town of about 27,000 in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California, Reasons came to Paradise for its spectacular natural vistas and affordability.
“I loved it,” said Reasons, 62, who moved here 18 years ago from the expensive coastal city of San Luis Obispo. “I loved smelling the pines in the morning. A very simple life for me.”
On Thursday, the Camp Fire roared through Paradise reducing Reasons’ entire neighbourhood to rubble along with the business district and other communities. On a drive into the blackened foothills from nearby Chico, thick smoke lingered, making it difficult to breathe. Burned-out cars dotted the streets and bits of flame burst forth from smoldering ruins.
By Tuesday, the fire about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco expanded to 130,000 acres. The death toll remained at 48, a record for a California wildfire, with 228 listed missing. More than 7,600 homes and other structures were destroyed, another record.
On a drive to Reasons’ lost home, the remains of a roadside sign gave the only clue of a candy factory’s site. Police officers searching for survivors cut open an automobile using “Jaws of Life” clippers.
Despite the devastation, the town has vowed to rebuild.
“We consider ourselves survivors, and we will come back from the ashes,” said Paradise Emergency Operations Coordinator Jim Broshears, a resident since 1974. “We are fully committed to building a new Paradise”.
Rebuilding will take a lot of work, but those who love the town say it will be worth it. Perched on a ridge overlooking the Feather River about 10 miles from the college town of Chico, Paradise was home initially to the Maidu Tribes of Native Americans, according to the town website. The 1848 gold rush brought prospectors. One hot day, a lumber mill owner resting in the shade declared the place to be “Paradise,” according to a story on the website.
Families and retirees flocked to Paradise in the 1960s; the town incorporated in 1978. The median household income in 2016 was $48,000, according to the U.S. Census, far less than the statewide median of $68,000.
Carol Barnes, whose home was also destroyed, was impressed by the neighbourliness in Paradise shortly after she and her husband moved there three years ago.
One day her husband’s truck broke down, she said, and he started pushing it across the road. He was amazed at how light the truck felt; then he realized two passersby had jumped out of their own vehicles and quietly started helping him push.
Barnes and her husband remade their mobile home to look like a woodland cabin. Her husband built a workshop out back to repair old vacuum tube radio sets; she sold antiques from the house.
“The town’s dead now,” Barnes said, sitting on a cot at a Red Cross shelter at the Neighbourhood Church next to her two dogs. Her cat was still missing.
Bruce Hopkins, 77, a former Vietnam marine sergeant who moved to Paradise from San Francisco, fled on foot when the fire threatened. A man in an SUV picked up him and a neighbour and brought them to the shelter.
Hopkins said he was unable to persuade another neighbour to leave, a retiree who was confined to a wheelchair.
Donna Broughton learned Tuesday that the mobile home where she lived with her two grandchildren had survived, but it would be a long time before the family would be allowed back in, as firefighters mopped up hotspots and toxic fumes and smoke abated.
“I’ll stay here and carry on, with or without a house,” she said at the Neighbourhood Church shelter. “Even if it’s a tent in the middle of the forest, it’s home.”
Paradise was so affordable that Reasons purchased an 800-square foot house at the end of an unpaved road on wages as an office assistant. To renovate her two-bedroom house, Reasons salvaged antique wood flooring from an old schoolhouse in a nearby town.
Her half-acre was secluded enough that she felt comfortable sunbathing in the yard in her underwear. She turned her wooded property into a refuge for injured wildlife: squirrels, raccoons, an opossum, hawks and even hummingbirds.
Reasons was surprised last Thursday when the order came to evacuate. She thought an autumn shower had begun which would help douse the fire, but the raindrops were really falling embers.
“The transformers were going, ‘boom, boom, boom,” she said. “People’s propane tanks were blowing up.
“I thought that it was rain,” Reasons said. “It was raining fire.”
Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in Chico, California; editing by Bill Tarrant and David Gregorio