David Neeley of Berry Creek, Calif., and his 10-year-old daughter, Faith, wait at the Red Cross evacuation center at the Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, Calif., on Tuesday after they fled the Camp Fire in their town. As of Tuesday evening, the Camp Fire has burned 125,000 acres and has claimed 42 lives, making it the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
OROVILLE, Calif. — A few hundred members of the frantic exodus from Paradise ended up here, in the large hardscrabble parking lot of the Church of the Nazarene.
There are campers and pickup trucks, their beds filled with pet and human food, bottles of water, blankets and toys. Dogs roam between the cars where, early Tuesday, people reclined in front seats to sleep. Camping tents dot the parking lot.
The neighbors who fled the Camp Fire, now the deadliest in state history, did so together. Now on this patch of dirt they have re-created their old neighborhoods, which sit an hour or so up the hill and likely have been reduced to ash.
[Death toll rises in California’s Camp Fire, making it the deadliest wildfire ever in the state]
But no one knows for certain. That is the enduring anxiety at this and other evacuation centers where tens of thousands of residents have ended up.
Their towns, where some here have lived for decades, are now a mystery. What has happened to friends and family is a mystery. The identities of the 42 people who died in the Camp Fire are a mystery, given that forensic testing is needed on most of the victims to determine who they are.
What becomes of Paradise, once residents are allowed back in to witness the comprehensive devastation firsthand, is a mystery. Many here just simply do not know how bad the damage is.
“We’re just hearing so many different stories and many of us have no idea whether our homes are still standing,” said Erin Finafrock, 33, who fled with her roommate Thursday morning from the Pleasant Pines RV Park in Magalia, a town near Paradise. “We’re really up in the air here.”
As the Camp Fire expanded Tuesday to the northeast, fire and rescue crews searched the ruins of Paradise and nearby towns for bodies.
A large wildfire plume from a recent flare-up near Lake Sherwood, Calif., is visible from Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Tuesday. (Amanda Myers/AP)
Two large fires also continued burning north of Los Angeles, and officials said the Woolsey Fire, which has torched parts of Malibu, has now destroyed more than 80 percent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area — a large swath of protected urban parkland that is home to hundreds of animal species and native plants.
There is no rain in sight on either end of the state.
Fire and rescue officials here expect the death toll from the Camp Fire to rise as the slow search work unfolds in the weeks ahead. More than 200 people remain unaccounted for, some of them probably huddling in shelters, waiting.
Until the work is complete, no one is allowed into Paradise.
The Red Cross evacuation center in Oroville has become a gathering place for those who had to flee Paradise and surrounding towns. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
Many people who have landed at the Oroville evacuation center expect they will have nothing to return to after the fire. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
People here have become online sleuths, scouring Facebook pages for any amateur video shot as the fire tore through town. They work their cellphones to check on friends and relatives. Some have been told it could be weeks before they can head back up the hill.
“I’d never owned a cellphone in my life, but I finally had to buy one two days ago,” said Harold Crouch, 55, who was born and raised in Paradise. “And then the first person I called on it told me I was on the sheriff’s missing list.”
Crouch fled the Pine Grove Mobile Home park with his neighbors, Jessica and Ian Franklin, who have set up their tent and a pair of pickup trucks next to him.
A man from Shasta County wanting to help visited the evacuation center a few nights ago and gave the Franklins a camper that fit the bed of their truck. Virgil, their 14-month-old son in onesie pajamas, played in the tent as his parents and neighbor figured out what to do next.
The Franklins and Crouch know their homes did not survive. As they drove out of their neighborhood Thursday morning, first ash, then burning embers rained down on them. The direction of the wind and proximity of the flames made clear their homes were doomed.
Ian Franklin, of Paradise, hangs out with his 14-month old son, Virgil, at the Red Cross evacuation center in Oroville. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
Crouch was not insured against fire. But he will return to Paradise, where he manages a pharmacy, and seek federal emergency assistance. His company also has established an employee relief fund.
“Some of our neighbors have already told us, ‘We’re out of here,’ and will not be going back,” Crouch said. “For me, it’s my home, it’s where I’ve been happiest. I’m going back.”
The Franklins will, too. They were insured and Ian Franklin is a fourth-generation Paradisian. There is no place else for him.
“We go back, we rebuild,” he said.
Those pledges, while heartfelt, are provisional. No one in this parking lot has seen the destruction, a town utterly annihilated by flame. More than 7,000 buildings have been burned, most of them homes in and around Paradise.
“We think we’re going to be okay, but we don’t really know,” said Jeanne Neeley, who fled with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, Faith, from their home in Berry Creek, southeast of Paradise. The family has been told they probably will not be allowed back into their town until Nov. 30.
In the meantime, Faith, who is avidly following the fire news on social media and through word of mouth, is building a tent. There are also seven dogs to care for, many of them puppies. The Neeleys have given four of them away since arriving Thursday night.
“These people just lost their dogs in the fire, so we’re happy to give them some of these guys,” said David Neeley, an auto mechanic whose employer was spared by the fire.
The generosity is widespread.
Doug Chandler pets his dog, KC, as his girlfriend, Jackie Humphreys, waits for word on their home’s condition. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)
This time Chandler’s landlord helped the family. He gave them his RV, which the Chandlers might be living in for the next week or so. KC, the family’s Australian shepherd, curled up on a patch of artificial turf on the doorstep.
“The first day or so it was shock and awe,” said Chandler, 60, who served in the Army for a dozen years. “The next days were fear and sadness. Now it’s just frustration with not knowing anything and not being allowed to return.”
Finafrock moved into her mobile home in Magalia five months ago. She left Oakland, hoping, as she put it, “to find a better quality of life.”
“And I found it here,” she said. “The people are so much kinder.”
Many of her neighbors surround her small yellow car, where she sleeps and, on this morning, has scattered an assortment of yogurt and bananas for people to take. But at least three of her neighbors are missing and unaccounted for, worrying the whole group of them here.
Even as a newcomer to the region, Finafrock intends to return and rebuild — “especially now,” she said.
“I’m closer than I have ever been to these people,” Finafrock said. “When you go through a traumatizing event like this as a group, you come together.”