It was a pretty little town east of Chico. Not only did the name give you an idea of what residents thought of their community, but even to get there, the road you took was called the Skyway. I mean how cool is that? About an eight mile trip where you climb about two thousand feet along the side of Butte Creek Canyon, which is pretty impressive, especially when you see it for the first time.
That town, the incorporated town of Paradise, is all but gone now. A fire that broke out early Thursday morning about seven miles further east, grew to a thousand acres in less than an hour. In another hour, it was five thousand acres and completely overran the small city of about 26-thousand people. People died in the cars trying to evacuate, an elementary school and hundreds of other businesses were destroyed. Thousands of homes are gone now. And most of the destruction only took a few hours.
As of tonight (Monday at 10pm), the Camp Fire, as it is now known (fires are usually named for the streets where they start—this one off of Camp Creek Road) has burned 117-thousand acres. To better comprehend that number, think about getting in your car and driving 13˝ miles (I'm sure you can think of a town or landmark that far away from wherever you are now). Then make a right turn and drive another 13˝ miles. If the fire was burning in a rectangle, you would have driven from one corner of the fire to the opposite corner—a space of almost 183 square miles.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known here as CalFire) says the blaze is now 30 percent contained. Full containment is not expected until the end of the month, and some of the other numbers that go with this fire are staggering.
According to the latest incident report, 6453 single residences have been destroyed and 36 damaged. The number of commercial structures lost is 260, with 22 more damaged. The number of structures still threatened is 15,500. Three firefighters have been injured, and the biggest number of all—42 people have been killed, with that number rising every day. It's now the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history, but it seems like that record is being broken every few months.
This is a nightmare. The fire has burned to the edge of the city of Chico, although that university town has not been threatened. It also burned toward Oroville, and over the weekend, it was feared the fire would jump over a lake—all because it was so windy. Evacuation shelters are full. More are opening up. The smoke has even drifted to the Bay Area two hundred miles away, causing air quality there to be listed as 'unhealthy'. Only just today are we beginning to see pictures of what's left of the town, and starting to hear the frightening stories of how some people got out, and how their friends and neighbors didn't.
And while this is a living nightmare for the people of Butte County, this is the unspoken nightmare for other foothill communities, including Nevada County. Three decades ago, the Forty Niner Fire (which started along Highway 49) was 33-thousand acres, and forced four thousand evacuations in Grass Valley and Nevada City. A total of 144 homes and 219 other structures burned, which pales in comparison to this blaze, but the people who are still here 30 years later remember, and rush to their phones or radios every time a plume of smoke is spotted, or a CalFire plane flies overhead.
It's way too early to know how the fire started, but one still has to wonder. It could have been some idiot playing with matches on a windy day. It could have been an accident where a car, or something from it, struck a spark. There was no lightning reported in the area, but there are power lines. Pacific Gas and Electric, which was blamed at least partially for fires in Santa Rosa and Grass Valley last year, reported a problem with a transmission line minutes before the blaze broke out. The utility has also recently enacted a policy of shutting off power to susceptible areas during high winds. There was an alert that a shutoff could happen Thursday, but it was called off.
For the people who lived in Paradise and surrounding little towns, it was a nice place to live. It was a retirement community for some, but a place to have some land and be amongst the trees for others. Decades ago, college students would come up during the winter to play in the snow. It doesn't snow there as much as it used to, and now, in November when there didn't used to be wildfires, an entire town was decimated in a matter of hours. The death toll will rise, but we are thankful for the stories of the people who made it out alive, and are safe, even though all of their 'stuff' is gone.
We'll find out what happened, and how it happened, in time, but until then you'll continue to hear these words said by reporters when they don't know what else to write or say. The cause is under investigation.