Harrowing escapes, heartbreaking loss in Northern California
PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — In the days since a ferocious, wind-whipped wildfire began tearing through this Northern California town, residents who stayed behind to try to save their property or who managed to get back to their neighborhoods despite mandatory evacuation orders found cars incinerated and homes reduced to rubble. They have tales of harrowing escape and struggling to cope with loss.
Oroville businesswoman Tracy Grant has taken in a 93-year-old World War II veteran who doesn’t know if his home in Paradise is still standing after a deadly wildfire swept through.
Grant said Sunday she was handing out hamburgers to evacuees Thursday at the Forebay Aquatic Center, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Paradise, when she encountered Lee Brundige in his car.
He initially refused the hamburger she offered, saying she should give it to someone who really needed it. She tried to get him to a shelter, but he said he was fine sleeping in his car.
The next day, she convinced him to come home with her when the sheriff’s office told people to clear out of the parking lot due to worsening air.
“He looks at me and kind of grunted, ‘No I don’t want to take advantage of anyone, you’re too kind.’ So I said, ’This is my car. You’re going to follow that bumper until we stop,” she said.
Her small dog Axle has kept Brundige company in the recliner they share. Grant says Brundige’s son knows he’s safe but she posted his father’s photo on social media so his friends know too.
One of the victims of the fire was an ailing woman whose body was found in bed in a burnt house in Concow.
Ellen Walker, who was in her early 70s, was home alone and probably on medications when the massive wildfire struck the town of Paradise and surrounding communities on Thursday, according to Nancy Breeding.
Breeding said Walker’s husband Lon was at work and called a neighbor to tell his wife to evacuate, but it’s unclear whether she was alert at the time. He assumed she had escaped the inferno and was trying to find her at rescue centers when authorities confirmed her death late Friday.
“He didn’t know that she hadn’t got out,” Breeding said.
“They were married for 20-something years. He’s having a difficult time accepting,” she said. “This is a devastating thing, and it’s happening to so many people.”
Cathy Fallon described the fire that destroyed her house as a “big tsunami.” She stayed behind and was able to save her 14 horses and barn using a hose, but she lost her house and her husband wound up hospitalized the morning after the fire. He remained hospitalized Saturday after fears he had had a heart attack. Two of her dogs and nine cats died in the fire.
“It was really scary when the rush of a huge amount of fire came up through the canyon at our house and barn,” she said. “But it didn’t seem to be able to jump to the barn, and I just kept watering the barn and watering any areas in the barn that caught on fire.”
She added, “It’s a dangerous situation. I remember my son saying, ‘Hey! There’s no firefighters. We’re on our own here.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ We were definitely on our own.”
She and her son, Gabriel, were sleeping in the horse stall and had no power or water.
Neighbors Courtenay Jenvey and Glen Walther ignored evacuation orders and fought the blaze with hoses. They were able to save their homes and two other homes, but all other houses for at least a half-mile in all directions were smoldering foundations, they said.
“Surreal, that’s the best word I could describe it by,” said Walther, who ventured out to see the neighborhood on Saturday for the first time. “I didn’t even want to go out, but when I did, by the time I was a quarter-mile down the road down there, I’m bawling like a cut calf.”
They also rescued a chocolate Labrador who had been left behind by its owner. The dog has been acting as a guard dog and has lifted their spirits, Jenvey said. The dog chased squirrels, chewed on sticks and sprinted in the black ash in Jenvey’s charred orchard of black olive trees as he talked.
Jenvey said he thought he was going to die as he was fighting to save his house and at one point realized he had no choice but to stay — all his exits were blocked by flame. Leaves were catching fire and floating down onto roofs, and the howling fire sounded like a jetliner taking off, he said.
“It was pitch black, black as midnight,” he said, his eyes red-rimmed from exhaustion and smoke. “We had active fire, sparks and embers hitting the roof, chunks of bark about a half-inch in diameter, flaming, that were hitting us. It was like rain, and so we were just hitting everything we could that started up as fast as we could with garden hoses.”
Shawna Howard, a Paradise resident, said she found out Saturday that her parents’ home didn’t survive the flames.
“You just sit here in a fog and think you’re going to wake up,” she said.
She recalled flames lining both sides of the roadway as she evacuated with her 12-year-old daughter.
“The heat, the heat was unreal,” she said.
At one point, Howard said she thought they would not make it out alive.
“I was praying out loud the entire time,” she said. When she would stop, her daughter would make her start up again, she said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus, Ryan Tarinelli, and Paul Elias contributed to this report.