A bucolic community was reduced to ash by a new kind of wildfire – the deadliest in California’s history. Survivors recall that horrible day
— William Goggia awoke to a poisonous orange atmosphere so thick with smoke he couldn’t see the sun.
It was 8am on Thursday 8 November. He heard the piercing metallic clang of propane tanks exploding in the distance. His sister, who lived nearby, called to ask him to help a relative in the area, but Goggia told her that he couldn’t: chunks of burning wood were falling from the sky.
Goggia inhabited the same stucco, three-bedroom house he grew up in. Now it was time to leave. By 9am he was on the road, accompanied by his tabby cat, Mikey. But the street was so clogged with people trying to escape that Goggia barely moved. The fire was getting closer. The van was going to burn up with him and the cat inside, he thought. So he turned back around against the traffic.
Goggia didn’t know it yet, but he had been engulfed by the deadliest wildfire in recorded California history. Soon at least 86 people would be dead in a new and ferocious kind of climate change-inflected wildfire. And Paradise would suffer a fate that appears increasingly likely: the total destruction of a modern American city.
This is a reconstruction of Paradise’s final hours, based on interviews with more than 50 residents, first responders and wildfire scientists.
Chapter one: a slice of heaven in the Sierra foothills
“You are ascending into Paradise,” read a road sign on the way into town, a charming spot in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California.
In truth, if this was a utopia it was a mellow sort. Dating back to the Gold Rush, Paradise was less a garden of earthly delights than a quiet community of 27,000, with homes and trailer parks hidden amid dense stands of pines and oaks.
Most here were middle and lower income. The population skewed towards retirees, but residents say there was also a younger influx escaping real estate prices elsewhere in California. When a Starbucks opened several months ago, a local joke went, Paradise had truly arrived.
But one menace was constant. Wildfires are a normal part of the forest ecosystem in California, and over the past decade parts of Paradise have been threatened by at least four fires. More than 200 structures were destroyed in 2008.
Recent conditions have boosted the risks. Years of drought exacerbated by global warming have left its forests achingly dry and littered with dead trees. And because there has been a policy of suppressing wildfires to protect homes and businesses in the state since the early 1900s, the landscape is now unusually dense with shrubs and young trees that would otherwise have been burned off by naturally occurring blazes. Fire experts, who have long spoken out about the danger, don’t see this as vegetation – they see it as fuel.
Paradise’s geography makes it particularly vulnerable. It sits on a ridge between two canyons that meet like the lines at the top of a triangle, providing magnificent vistas but also impeding escape in the event of a disaster. One main thoroughfare, Skyway, leads out of town and into the valley to the west.
Residents could opt in to an alert system that would notify them of trouble via telephone, text and email, and Paradise had an emergency plan that split the city into evacuation zones. Evacuations would proceed based on which areas were affected, and during a disaster, cars would be permitted to use both lanes on certain roads to flee.
But the plan, officials would later say, had a crucial vulnerability: it did not envision the panicked evacuation of the entire town at once.
Two days before the fire, the gas and electric company PG&E, which serves much of northern California, warned roughly 70,000 customers in nine counties, including in Paradise, that it was considering shutting off power because of increased fire risks from high winds and low humidity.
Sparks from PG&E equipment have been blamed for igniting a number of fires, including the Tubbs fire, which killed 22 in wine country in 2017, and 2015’s Butte fire, which killed two and destroyed more than 900 structures after a tree came into contact with a power line.
The night before the fire, the utility company said it was continuing to monitor weather conditions, and by 10pm it still hadn’t made a final decision about whether to turn off power.
Chapter two: the horror begins
3.30am Thursday, Paradise
On the day the blaze broke out, Susan Van Horn was having trouble sleeping. Lying in bed in her double-wide mobile home, she noticed the wind: gusts tearing through the oak trees on her half-acre property, falling branches and acorns clattering on to her roof. “I thought, ‘if we’re going to have a fire, this is it,’” said Van Horn, 66.
Normally the wind in California blows from west to east – from the Pacific Ocean inland. But, particularly in the fall, a different pattern emerges: hot northerly air from the Nevada deserts courses over the Sierra Nevada, rushing downslope over towns like Paradise. These are winds that firefighters fear because they disperse wildfire embers like dandelion seeds flung into the breeze. In Paradise that morning, there were northerly gusts of up to 70mph.
At 6.15am, PG&E reported a power outage on one of its transmission lines near the community of Pulga, in the hills about 10 miles east of Paradise. By 6.30am, according to the company, an employee observed fire on the same transmission line. It would be christened the Camp fire, after the fire’s location at Camp Creek Road. Cal Fire officials are investigating a second possible ignition point, also at 6.30am and near the same area.
Rob Nichols, 51, an 18-year veteran of the Paradise police, rose at 7am to gusty winds and an unsettling red glow in the sky, visible from the back patio of the home he shared with his wife and young stepchildren. The glow concerned him, and he called a colleague at the station, who told him about the small fire burning near Pulga. Paradise, the colleague said, would probably be OK.
8am, Paradise police station
When Nichols arrived at work, 911 calls were pouring in, and ash was falling from the sky as if from a volcano. He had a very bad feeling. He called his wife and told her to pack the kids in the car and leave.
Evacuations were ordered for the tiny communities east of Paradise, but the situation quickly spiraled into something far more terrifying. The flames were being propelled downslope by gales at speeds of 80 football fields a minute. Suddenly they were approaching Paradise itself.
At around 8.30am, Nichols got a call to respond to a fire. Strangely, it wasn’t east of Paradise – it was in the heart of the city.
Nichols and a trainee officer went looking for flames. They drove past the homes of family and friends and arrived at a small gated lot where they found the fire. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. They hopped a fence and Nichols turned on a hose, but no water came out. By this time, firefighters were being inundated with calls from all over town and could not respond. The pair were left with no choice but to run from house to house, banging on doors to alert people, some still asleep, that it was time to go.
Nichols recognized what was happening. Extreme winds were lofting embers to areas far to the west of the main body of flames, igniting so-called spot fires.
These spot fires destroyed all hope for an orderly evacuation, said Nichols. “When you make fire evacuation plans you think in your mind the fire is going to come from the east or the west side.” But this one blew fires all over town. “Before you knew it, all your evacuation routes are on fire.”
9am, Paradise elementary school
Some of those who opted in to the alert system say they received warnings, but others did not, and many locals say they had no official notification at all that they were in the fire’s path. That could be because the fire destroyed cell towers and other communication infrastructure, preventing the alert from reaching some residents.
Early on Thursday morning Krystin Harvey, a 44-year-old homemaker, called her daughters’ high school to ask whether classes had been canceled owing to the plume she could see on the eastern horizon.
“They said they’re not going to cancel school for smoke,” she explained. After all, fires were a regular part of life in Paradise. So she and Arianne, 17, and Arissa, 16, climbed into her car. On the way they noticed that the pines were coated in ash, as if there had been a blizzard. She dropped them off, but at around 8.20am the school called: it was evacuating, and the girls would have to be collected.
At Paradise elementary, a teacher named Lynn Pitman, 54, had also seen the smoke and thought little of it. When it became so stifling that the children were sent in from the playground, she began to worry. Sitting at her desk to call parents, “I was shaking pretty bad.” Once only a few kids were left she gathered with the other teachers and their remaining students in a classroom upstairs.
Outside it was now growing dark, as if an eerie twilight were falling at 9am. “Looking at the kids’ faces I thought, ‘I gotta do something with them,’” Pitman said. Forcing cheeriness, she gave them snacks and began playing games, until police came through to check the building and told them to move. Buses were waiting next door, they said.
“Once I got outside, the smoke, the darkness – it looked like midnight,” Pitman said. “Then I got really scared.”
The winds were blowing plumes of smoke low over the town, forming a choking, swirling shroud about 1,500 meters deep. A fireman seemed shocked to see Pitman. The buses had already left, he said, and instructed her to find a car. Pitman quickly flagged down a woman named Millie, who she vaguely recognized, and threw herself and three students in the car. But it was no escape.
Chapter three: a desperate escape
As many of the tens of thousands of inhabitants of Paradise, and of Magalia higher up in the hills, all tried to leave at once, the result was predictable but no less horrific: gridlock. Cars, RVs and trailers inched along as the fire outpaced them and trees and homes on either side of the road went up like torches. Some vehicles ran out of gas or caught fire themselves, blocking the way and making the jam worse. “You’re fight or flight, you’re trying to get out, to escape, and it’s bumper-to-bumper LA traffic,” said Pitman. “You can’t move, and flames are all around you.”
Inside their car, the temperature was rising. One of the boys asked if he could pray, and for a while they could all hear his small voice asking Jesus for help. Pitman called her husband to apologize for not leaving sooner. He listened as, in the background, Millie, the driver, pounded the steering wheel and shouted: “Go, go, go, everybody go.”
By now, the fire had morphed from a countryside blaze to one that raged its way from building to building. The Safeway, the Skyway Villa RV park, the Gold Nugget local history museum, the Paradise Adventist church, the mayor’s home, the police chief’s home: all went up.
Fires aren’t supposed to act like this any more. In 1906, a fire that broke out in the wake of San Francisco’s great earthquake incinerated the city. But decades of research into fire safety and changes to building codes were meant to have ameliorated large-scale structural conflagrations, said Faith Kearns, a researcher at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In recent years, though, things have begun to change. In 2017, some 3,000 single-family homes were destroyed in the city of Santa Rosa, and over 1,000 homes burned in summer 2018 in a fire that advanced into the city of Redding, which also saw a bizarre “fire tornado”.
The main drivers, Kearns believes, are a more extreme climate and more people living in fire-prone, semi-rural areas. “We engineered our way out of that kind of fire,” she said. “Now we’re seeing it come back.”
Back on the road, Allyn Pierce, the manager of the intensive care unit at Adventist Health Feather River, was on the run with two colleagues. After evacuating 67 patients they had hopped into Pierce’s Toyota truck but were almost immediately waylaid amid exploding gas tanks and burning cars.
The air conditioner was running full blast, yet the windows were hot enough to burn skin. Trying to keep the atmosphere light, Pierce put on music. Celine Dion’s song Ashes came on, and he skipped it. Instead they sang along to Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. A Volkswagen Beetle passed Pierce’s truck and caught fire. Its driver jumped out and ran.
Cars, some abandoned, now completely blocked the road, and when a fire truck pulled up next to the Toyota, Pierce’s colleagues sought refuge in the cab. But he stayed: he hoped the road might somehow clear, and he didn’t want to trap anyone else behind him by leaving his own vehicle.
Soon the firefighters began covering their windows of their truck with heat-reflective blankets – their last resort when surrounded by fire. Pierce recorded a video for his family and friends, and buried it deep in his center console, hoping that it would survive if he did not. He expected that flames would overtake his truck in minutes. Listening to an acoustic version of A-ha’s Take on Me, he put his hands on the wheel and sang along to the chorus, trying to blot out the whirls of fire outside the window.
Pierce made it. A bulldozer miraculously appeared and began clearing abandoned cars to create a path out. By 10.30am, Pierce was back at the hospital, helping to set up a triage center and treating incoming patients.
Pitman also eventually made it off the ridge with her students – a journey that was usually 20 minutes took over three hours. On TV, she watched footage of her school burning.
Chapter four: fighting to save lives
Ken Lowe had never seen a fire so intense. As residents tried to flee, the Cal Fire chief, leading a “strike team” of five engines with three firefighters each, went the opposite way – back into town, trawling through the vicious jam.
Near the Fastrip gas station in the north of town, as vehicles began to catch fire and their occupants fled with nowhere to go, Lowe and his crews did the only thing they could think of to save lives. They shouted for people to run toward the wide intersection.
There, Lowe’s five fire trucks formed a physical barrier around 100 or so civilians and their dozens of dogs and cats, protecting them as the flames went past. “It was panic,” Lowe said: pitch black, trees lighting up like matches all around, power lines arcing, embers skidding through the sky like amber snowflakes.
As escape became impossible, firefighters elsewhere also tried to help people shelter in place. One couple, Diana and Helmut Bredow, and their son were corralled with others into an intersection as firefighters aimed water cannons at the encroaching flames, like soldiers defending a position from attack.
Near the site of the old Optimo bar,crews hatcheted their way inside some empty, newly constructed buildings and hustled anywhere from 100 to 200 people inside with their animals.
In the memory of one of the evacuees, everyone, and even the dogs, was composed and self-possessed. By contrast, Erin Roach 58, recalled that “people were crying – “I don’t wanna die.”An amateur artist, Roach had her paints with her, so she did the only thing she could to stay calm: she started painting. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
That morning Roach encountered a police officer who looked particularly stressed, so she put her arms around him.
It happened to be Nichols, the policeman who had discovered the spot fire a few hours earlier. “I thought she seemed like she needed a hug,” Nichols said, “and I’m sure she thought I needed one.”
For those the firefighters could not reach, survival was a matter of outpacing the flames. After following a light blinking in the darkness, one fire crew found a paraplegic man with scorched feet who had dragged himself 50 yards (45 meters) along a dry creek bed, and out of harm’s way. In the town of Concow, east of Paradise, over a dozen people waded into a reservoir for shelter, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
After turning his van around, William Goggia headed toward the home of his neighbors, the Romeros. On a rocky patch they had erected three enormous crucifixes. That was where he decided to leave his van with the cat still inside. He recalled addressing God: “I said, ‘I’m gonna leave him in your hands.’”
In the suffocating smoke, he went back out and followed the road by foot, hoping it would be easier to make progress. Yet he was not in perfect health. A locksmith for 30 years, Goggia, 56, had a heart attack three months previously and did landscaping work as his health allowed.
He hadn’t advanced very far before he was overcome by the choking fumes and collapsed to the ground. Vainly he tried to get up or get the attention of passing vehicles. At some point, his left eye was injured so severely that he was permanently blinded. Lying in a ditch at the side of the road, he thought he was going to die.
Finally a truck stopped for him. “Hell yeah, you can get a ride,” said the two men who crammed him into their truck among their belongings. Instead of aiming for safety, however, they turned towards the flames: one of the men wanted to save his tiny home, a residence the size of a garden shed that could be transported on a trailer.
Goggia thought the man was out of his mind, and indeed, just as they reached the spot, the tiny home caught fire, and the man retreated.
It seemed like a fatal detour. The road out was now blocked by flames, and the driver seemed unsure what to do. His friend pulled him out of the front seat, but the car would not start. Flames coiled and flickered into the cab through the open windows, and the sides of the truck began to melt. The floorboard was so hot that they had to lift their feet. Goggia’s leg nearest the door was severely burned, and he poured a bottle of water over himself to stop himself being cooked. The man in the back was trying to stomp and pat out fires that were igniting in the cab.
Finally the engine caught. The driver jammed the accelerator, and they blasted through the wall of fire.
Chapter five: a harsh toll
It took firefighters 17 days to bring the Camp fire under control, by which time it had destroyed 14,000 homes, including almost 90% of those in Paradise, according to city officials. Authorities have spent weeks sifting through the rubble for human remains.
Of the 86 people who died in the fire, the overwhelming majority were found in Paradise. About 20 were found in the communities of Concow, Magalia and Butte Creek Canyon. Most were inside homes and other structures, and a smaller number were in cars.
The fire moved so quickly that it trapped the town’s most vulnerable inhabitants – its senior citizens. Of the deceased identified so far by authorities, 46 were aged 65 or older.
Paradise resident Chellie Saleen, 56, had risen at 6am, went for a coffee with a friend and observed a pall of smoke. Returning home, she received an alert by phone, and “all of a sudden someone was banging on door – it was my neighbor saying, ‘we gotta go now.’” She quickly changed out of her nightgown into jeans and a shirt and tried to call her 75-year-old mother, Joanne Caddy, who lived in Magalia, but couldn’t get through.
Her mother didn’t drive and depended on her for everything from her shopping to her medication. Saleen threw a few things in the car and headed in her mother’s direction through the abysmal traffic, but she was blocked by “a wall of fire”.
“She was probably expecting me,” Saleen said. She isn’t sure how her mother, or her mother’s two dogs, died. “I hope she was just sedated and sleeping and didn’t suffer.”
Saleen’s own home was destroyed. She has no idea where she will go next. “I feel alone,” she said. “I lived alone and took care of her.”
In the year before the fire, Beverly Craig Powers, 64, a nurse, had posted on social media of her deep affection for Paradise. She and her partner, Robert Duvall, 76, loved to camp and fish.
According to Kelci Craig, Powers’ niece, Duvall was trying to move his fishing boat to safety when the flames overtook him. Perhaps he, like many residents, assumed that the fire would be like the others that had imperiled Paradise: a threat, but not life-threatening. His remains were found in the car, and remains have also been discovered in the couple’s trailer, which the family assumes are Powers’.
Powers’ own brother worked for decades as a firefighter with Cal Fire, the state’s fire-protection agency, said Kelci Craig. “That’s what makes me sick. He spends his whole life fighting fire then loses his sister in one of the deadliest.”
Chapter six: ‘Paradise won’t be the last’
Experts are urging change in the wake of the fire. Prescribed burns should be implemented more widely to reduce the fuel load, they argue, and the wisdom of siting settlements amid forests and grasslands should be questioned. Yet for those trained to read it, future tragedies are already inscribed on the California landscape.
Eighteen years before she was a fire scientist at the University of Idaho, Crystal Kolden worked as a firefighter based in Placerville, about 85 miles south-east of Paradise.
Last month, she drove from Idaho to southern California for Thanksgiving. It was like retracing earlier parts of her life, but the memory and the reality were jarringly discordant. Over 100m trees, mostly conifers, are estimated to have died in California in a five-year period of drought in the 2010s, and Kolden was “blown away by how many dead pine trees we saw – alone, in clusters, all over the place”, she said.
Of greater concern, she also saw that oaks, a resilient species that dot even the driest hills in California, were suffering. “When I fought fire, we didn’t worry much about the oaks,” she said. They are more moist and can slow fire. “Now what I see is a continuous bed of 20 to 40ft-high oak and pine trees that is tinder dry and ready to burn.”
The consequences for places like Paradise are clear. “The vegetation is responding very, very obviously to climate change extremes, and setting the stage for more disasters,” Kolden said. “Paradise will not be the last town we lose.”
Craig Clements, who researches the weather associated with wildfires at San José State University, had a blunter assessment. “This whole place is going to burn down. Paradise is just one example.”
Little remains of this understated utopia: the Starbucks; a gourmet pizza place; the occasional house, inexplicably still standing. Some hope the town can stage a comeback. The mayor, Jody Jones, for one, plans to rebuild her own home. But many Paradisians remain rootless: stuck in evacuation centers or scattered elsewhere.
In the heat of the moment, there was not always time to grab precious belongings. After waking at 3.30am, Susan Van Horn escaped with her “go-bag”, some changes of clothing and utility bills. She considers herself lucky. A high-school teacher, Virginia Partain, only had time to pick up her students’ draft college admission essays and a blanket. Retired teacher Suzanne Linebarger left with $30 of scallops she had purchased for dinner, a pair of mismatched shoes, and her swimming fins from a vacation to Mexico. “Why didn’t I grab my grandmother’s mandolin worth hundreds of dollars?” she wondered.
William Goggia got out with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. The fire left him with searing injuries: burns on his right leg and ear and a ruined eye. Even now, he cannot sleep without dreaming of the flames, and his sister is seeking donations for his care. Something else of his, however, did survive the destruction.
A day after he escaped, and while the town was still cordoned off by officials, Goggia snuck back in. The extent of his injuries had not yet been recognized – he was in terrible pain, and would later be admitted to the hospital for almost two weeks. But he was determined. Below the crosses, there was his van, still intact. He opened the door to a miaow.
by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano | The Guardian