Camp Fire Becomes Deadliest Wildfire In California's History

Nov 13, 2018
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene in Culver City, Calif. Not far from here in LA, a deadly fire is still burning. Two people have been confirmed dead, and scores of people remain out of their homes. Another fire is burning in Northern California, and there, emergency workers have found 13 more bodies. This makes the so-called Camp Fire the deadliest single blaze in the history of the state with a total of 42 lives lost. More than 200 people, though, are still reported missing. In and around the town of Paradise, north of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills, most of the homes and businesses were incinerated. Joining us now is NPR's Eric Westervelt, who spent time in Paradise, and he is now in Chico, not far from there.

Hi there, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this fire spread through this community so fast. It sounds like total devastation with so many people still missing and families coping with that. Just take me there, and tell me what you saw and heard.

WESTERVELT: Yeah. The fire is spreading incredibly fast. And David, the level of destruction is just heartbreaking and staggering to see up close. This town is, you know, nestled in the Sierra Foothills. It was built sort of right into the forest. The trees came right up to people's backyards and businesses. And just only a handful of shops in the central business area of Paradise survived this intense fire. And in the residential areas, you know, just a few homes here and there are left standing. And block after block, David, when you walk around or drive around there, all you see are burned-out cars and chimneys where homes once stood. I mean, occasionally, you'll see, you know, a boat or a random metal stairway now sort of leading into nowhere. But most everything else was just incinerated. It's just ashes.

GREENE: So - and there's worry now, with all of these people missing, that this death toll could go even higher - I mean, a lot higher. And I mean, can people even get back into the community to see their homes and look for people? What do you do if you're a family in this situation?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. People can't get in yet - back in. They're anxious to see what, if anything, of course is, you know, left of their property. And they want to know about their loved ones who are missing. Authorities are looking for remains. They brought in additional search and recovery teams to look through the ashes for victims. They've requested additional cadaver dog crews as well as portable morgue units. I spoke, David, with some firefighters in Paradise on Monday. They were going from, you know, one incinerated house to the next. I caught up with Medford, Ore., firefighter Tyler Nelson as he and his colleagues looked for missing pets, for remains and especially for hot spots that were flaring up. Let's take a listen.

TYLER NELSON: We want to make sure it's out so that if it gets windy again, it's not going to blow embers and start something that hasn't burned on fire.

WESTERVELT: Not much left that hasn't burned - a few houses.

NELSON: Not much, not that we've seen.

WESTERVELT: Nelson spies a wounded doe burned and cowering in one of the only bits of shrubbery left in this block. He brings her a big bowl of water, hoping she'll drink up. Ash and smoke hang in the air. It's semidark at midday. Smoke blocks out much of the sun. The veteran firefighter seems stunned at the total devastation.

NELSON: I've I've never seen anything like it in my life. This is not a very fun job for us to go do. It's super sad.

WESTERVELT: Many of those who lost their homes have taken refuge in temporary shelters or with friends in the Chico area. Dozens of tarps packed with donations - clothes, shoes, pillows - fill the back lawn of the Chico Elks Club.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And then boys' jeans are...

MICHAEL VARNER: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...At least last night, they were back in that corner.

VARNER: OK.

WESTERVELT: Fire evacuees, most from Paradise, wear masks against the smoky air. They fled with nothing. They need everything. Michael Varner is almost certain the house he and his parents lived in is gone; so is his sister's home. He picked up a used booster seat for his child.

VARNER: We need car seat - came with the clothes on our back on foot - lost all the vehicles, lost the house, lost everything.

WESTERVELT: Nearby, while looking for clothes, Angela Earnhart runs into her friend Josh Bates. They embrace. Both look weary. Earnhart and her family barely made it out of the town of Magalia just outside of Paradise. Bates gives Earnhart the news. His 27-year-old daughter Teal Gunter is missing. The last sighting of her was Thursday night around 6 p.m.

JOSH BATES: We filed missing person, but we haven't heard anything yet. So we're going over to the sheriff's department after we search the shelters to see if we can find her.

WESTERVELT: Gunter is one of the more than 200 still reported missing. Eighty-five-year-old Betty Branham is here to pick out some clothes, especially something to wear to church. She's tired. She's sipping hot chocolate under a tree. She says the fire day had started out like any other.

BETTY BRANHAM: I was doing my devotions and she said - my daughter came and said, Mom, there's a lot of smoke coming up over the hill.

WESTERVELT: Within minutes, Branham says, that smoke was mixed with flaming red embers dropping from the sky, sparking small fires. She grabbed her Bible and her two dogs and fled with her daughter fast. Like many others, she had to navigate a stretch of highway where fire was coming at them from both sides of the road.

BRANHAM: And I could feel the heat from the fire on my face as we were getting out of there.

WESTERVELT: Many of those who settled in Paradise were older folks like Branham, people without a lot of money but who found an affordable slice of rural California they'd hoped to happily spend their retirement years. Branham lost her husband two years ago. A daughter then bought a piece of land and a small house in Paradise for both of them to live on.

And what'd you like about it before this?

BRANHAM: Mainly, the cost of the house wasn't nearly as bad as Chico and the countriness (ph) of it, you know. We had 13 trees on our property. There's dangerous out there, but I'm not very good with city life.

WESTERVELT: Do you hope to rebuild? Or do you feel like...

BRANHAM: Right now, we're so overwhelmed, we don't know. We're just taking one day at a time.

WESTERVELT: I hope there are brighter times. I know it's been tough. I'm sorry.

BRANHAM: Do you suppose I could get a hug?

WESTERVELT: Sure, ma'am. Well, take care of yourself, all right?

BRANHAM: Thank you.

WESTERVELT: Bye-bye.

GREENE: That was NPR's Eric Westervelt.

Eric, thanks for that reporting.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.