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Paradise area was heaven for victims of deadly wildfire

February 15, 2019
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In this Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 photo, Christina Taft, the daughter of Camp Fire victim Victoria Taft, poses with a photo of her mother, at the burned out ruins of the Paradise, Calif., home where she died last fall. Taft refused to leave. If the threat was real, authorities would order an evacuation, she told her daughter. Victoria Taft’s remains were recovered from the ruins of her living room. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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In this Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 photo, Christina Taft, the daughter of Camp Fire victim Victoria Taft, poses with a photo of her mother, at the burned out ruins of the Paradise, Calif., home where she died last fall. Taft refused to leave. If the threat was real, authorities would order an evacuation, she told her daughter. Victoria Taft’s remains were recovered from the ruins of her living room. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

On that frantic morning, TK Huff was calm. The 71-year-old amputee sat in his wheelchair, pointing a garden hose at what quickly became the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Nobody knew at the time, early on Nov. 8, how bad it would be. When his family called at 7:15 a.m., Huff said he would leave. But he never made it out.

All around, fires were breaking out, and men and women — most of them elderly, many of them disabled — were doomed: Flames soon overtook 74-year-old Richard Brown’s beloved log cabin in the Sierra Nevada foothills. On the edge of neighboring Paradise, a blaze prompted the Feather Canyon Retirement Community to evacuate its residents — all except 88-year-old Julian Binstock, overlooked in the chaos.

It was just the start of a day that was almost unfathomable. An entire town was burned off the map of California. Nearly 14,000 homes were incinerated.

All told, 85 people would perish. The oldest was 99; of the 73 bodies that have been identified, 59 were 65 or older. One hundred days later — with the aid of public records showing the locations of victims’ deaths, CalFire mapping of the fire’s progression and dozens of interviews — their stories can be told. How they lived, how they died.

And how a fire that started at 6:30 a.m. in the tiny town of Pulga would become the nation’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in more than a century.

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The flames spread through the back of Concow, where Huff lived. This was no ordinary fire, with fronts marching steadily forward. Wind gusts of at least 50 mph blew hot embers a mile or more, creating multiple fires at once and igniting areas the size of football fields every few seconds, said CalFire spokesman Scott McLean.

Huff and his wife, Margaret, who died in August, knew the risk of wildfires. Their house, high on a wooded ridge, burned down in 2008. But this was the house where three generations gathered for Easter egg hunts, for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, and pretty much every weekend of the year. With no internet or cell reception, the focus was always on family.

So they rebuilt.

Huff was stoic and strong, a farm laborer who worked in the fields his whole life; he lost a leg in a potato harvesting accident in 2001 but didn’t let his disability hold him back, said his daughter-in-law Pearl Lankford, whose own house in Paradise burned down along with the homes of eight family members.

When the fire arrived, just after sunrise, Huff’s instinct was to save his house.

“We told him, ‘You need to evacuate now,’” said his granddaughter Jordan Huff, 22, who lived in Paradise.

“He was putting out the flames in his backyard in his wheelchair,” she said. “There was no distress in his voice.”

Soon after the family’s call at 7:15 that morning, the house phone went dead. A CalFire simulation shows that by 9 a.m., flames had overtaken Green Forest Lane, where Huff lived.

His remains were found in the ashes of his house. The only thing still standing was his wheelchair, near the back fence with the garden hose.

By then a separate fire about a mile away had destroyed the log cabin built by Richard Brown, the unofficial mayor of Concow, a Vietnam veteran whose mom and stepdad had a winery in Paradise — which is how he came to name his daughter, Chardonnay Telly. She recalled her dad as relentlessly upbeat, a man who loved to tinker with old cars that inevitably broke down in the middle of nowhere.

His remains would later be found under one of those vehicles, on his beloved patch of land.

About the same time, more than two miles to the west, on the eastern edge of Paradise, the Feather Canyon Retirement Community was hastily evacuating its more than 100 residents. In the chaos, they somehow overlooked Julian Binstock, 88 — something that rarely happened in a life that took him from Brooklyn to Harvard University to the entertainment business, where he would become a vice president of Warner Communications.

At the retirement community, where he had moved with his wife Elisabetta a decade ago, he was known for his sense of humor. Each year, he won the award for “Funniest Resident”; he kept up his reputation by asking his children for jokes to try out on his neighbors, said his daughter, Christina Lamb, of Southborough, Massachusetts.

By 9 a.m., the community was gone, and so was Binstock.

Lamb, her two siblings and children would spend a frantic week looking for him in evacuation centers and hospitals, but he had died in his residence.

She doesn’t fault the retirement center. “It’s the fire’s fault,” she said.

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By 10 a.m., the fire surged across a canyon and into the town of Paradise, population 27,000. It had torched 20 square miles and sparked a separate fire miles away on the other side of town.

On the eastern edge of Paradise, 93-year-old Dorothy Lee Herrera had already left a frantic voicemail for her son, Arthur Lee: “There’s a fire, we’ve got to get out!”

But by the time he called back, there was no answer. She and her husband, Lou Herrera, 86, died in the house where they’d lived for a quarter century, amid the ashes of trees that provided fruit for Dorothy’s delicious pies.

North of the Herrera home, the fire roared through the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, a tidy community for people 55 and older near the Ponderosa Elementary School, killing Teresa Ammons, 82, Helen Pace, 84, and Dorothy Mack, an 87-year-old retired clerk for the California Department of Corrections who loved Paradise. To her it was a more affordable Grass Valley, the Northern California town where she’s grown up.

Ernie Foss, a 63-year-old musician, also left the expensive San Francisco Bay Area for the cheaper Paradise. His body and that of his dog, Bernice, were found outside his home, near his wheelchair and minivan, according to his children.

The body of his caretaker and stepson, Andrew Burt, was found a quarter-mile away on Edgewood Lane, outside a vehicle at an intersection where four others died in their cars, trying to flee.

Burt was 36 and among the younger victims of the fire. He moved to Paradise with his mother, Linda, and her husband, Foss, about a decade ago and stayed on as a caregiver after his mother died in 2012. His brother, James Burt, said he can’t imagine how dire the situation must have been for Andrew to leave Ernie Foss behind.

“The general consensus was that Andy would not have abandoned Ernie,” he said, “but if Ernie had passed or told Andy to save himself, he would have.”

By the time the fire reached Burt and Foss, it was 10:45 a.m.

Minutes later, the inferno consumed David Marbury, 66. A private man who loved horses, Marbury grew up in Vallejo, California, and headed for the Navy after high school. He eventually retired from the commuter rail Bay Area Rapid Transit and moved to Paradise — “just a good person all around,” said his niece, Sadia Quint.

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By 11 a.m., the center of Paradise was being overtaken by flames.

More than a half-dozen fires to the east of town had merged to form a 32 square-mile inferno, a wall of fire and smoke roughly the size of Manhattan.

As the blaze raced west, it reached the homes of John Digby and Victoria Taft — 2.5 miles apart — almost simultaneously.

Both had spoken to their adult children that morning for the last time.

Victoria Taft’s parting words with her 22-year-old daughter, Christina, were tense. A neighbor had come knocking around 8:30 a.m. A fire was coming — they should evacuate. Mother and daughter argued about what to do.

Taft refused to leave. If the threat was real, authorities would order an evacuation, she told her daughter. By 10 a.m. Christina could see the morning sky blackening from smoke. She packed the car and left, joining what had become a bumper-to-bumper exodus.

Victoria Taft’s remains were recovered from the ruins of her living room.

In the aftermath, Christina set out to memorialize her mother and in the process discovered a woman she hardly knew existed — a free spirited, fun-loving Southern California beauty who acted in television, movies and commercials, partied with rock stars in the ’70s and ’80s and traveled the world before motherhood became her focus.

Taft, 66, was losing her eyesight from glaucoma and suffered from memory loss. When Christina asked about her youth, Taft didn’t remember the details. But among the items Christina frantically grabbed that morning were boxes of documents from a closet, only later discovering the contents: her mom’s old resumes, head shots, casting lists.

The decision to leave her mother behind will forever haunt her. “I didn’t do enough to get my mom out,” she said. “I feel like I accidentally killed her by not helping her.”

Across town, John Digby talked by phone with his son Roman in Owatonna, Minnesota. The son wanted his father to see a doctor about his sore throat. Digby — a 78-year-old Air Force veteran and retired postal carrier — didn’t mention anything about a fire.

Two hours later, the fire reached Digby at his home in Space 3 at the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park. A neighbor later told Roman Digby that he tried to get his father to leave, but his father said no.

A quarter-hour after the fire reached Digby and Taft, it came for Andrew Downer — who also had a chance to leave, but chose not to.

Downer, 54, had lost his right leg to diabetes and infection from surgery, and he used a wheelchair. His caregiver Cindy MacDonald was thinking about running over to fix him breakfast, but then she got a call warning of fire. She offered to pick Downer up, but he declined. The dogs didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave the place to looters.

Downer, described by friends as loud and fun and generous, died in the house he had filled with collections of marbles, crystals and antiques — and condiments.

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Nearly three weeks later, 80-year-old Larry R. Smith was taken off life support at a Northern California medical center — the 85th and final victim of the Camp Fire.

“Uncle Ronnie” — born to a Dust Bowl family of eight children that had come to California to pick crops — loved to host gatherings of the clan on the rambling property he purchased in Paradise about three decades ago. Recently, he had started showing signs of dementia but he was independent and reluctant to leave the first house he ever purchased.

Smith had tried to save his treasured truck, a 1993 Dodge Ram that he rarely drove but plastered with contradictory political bumper stickers. Rescuers found Smith barefoot and badly burned.

He died on Nov. 25.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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This undated photo provided by Pearl Lankford shows TK Huff, left, and his late wife Margaret. On Nov. 8, 2018, when his family called at 7:15 a.m., Huff said he would leave as the Camp Fire approached. But he never made it out. (Pearl Lankford via AP)