Magalia, Nov 16 (AP/UNB) — Ten years ago, as two wildfires advanced on Paradise, residents jumped into their vehicles to flee and got stuck in gridlock. That led authorities to devise a staggered evacuation plan — one that they used when fire came again last week.
But Paradise's carefully laid plans quickly devolved into a panicked exodus on Nov. 8. Some survivors said that by the time they got warnings, the flames were already extremely close, and they barely escaped with their lives. Others said they received no warnings at all.
Now, with at least 56 people dead and perhaps 300 unaccounted for in the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century, authorities are facing questions of whether they took the right approach.
It's also a lesson for other communities across the West that could be threatened as climate change and overgrown forests contribute to longer, more destructive fire seasons .
Reeny Victoria Breevaart, who lives in Magalia, a forested community of 11,000 people north of Paradise, said she couldn't receive warnings because cellphones weren't working. She also lost electrical power.
Just over an hour after the first evacuation order was issued at 8 a.m., she said, neighbors came to her door to say: "You have to get out of here."
Shari Bernacett, who with her husband managed a mobile home park in Paradise where they also lived, received a text ordering an evacuation. "Within minutes the flames were on top of us," she said.
Bernacett packed two duffel bags while her husband and another neighbor knocked on doors, yelling for people to get out. The couple grabbed their dog and drove through 12-foot (4-meter) flames to escape.
In the aftermath of the disaster, survivors said authorities need to devise a plan to reach residents who can't get a cellphone signal in the hilly terrain or don't have cellphones at all.
In his defense, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said evacuation orders were issued through 5,227 emails, 25,643 phone calls and 5,445 texts, in addition to social media and the use of loudspeakers. As cellphone service went down, authorities went into neighborhoods with bullhorns to tell people to leave, and that saved some lives.
Honea said he was too busy with the emergency and the recovery of human remains to analyze how the evacuation went. But he said it was a big, chaotic, fast-moving situation, and there weren't enough law enforcement officers to go out and warn everyone.
"The fact that we have thousands and thousands of people in shelters would clearly indicate that we were able to notify a significant number of people," the sheriff said.
Some evacuees were staying in tents and cars at a Walmart parking lot and in a nearby field in Chico, though volunteers planning to close the makeshift shelter by Sunday were working to transition people to other locations.
A Sunday closure "gives us enough time to maybe figure something out," said Mike Robertson, an evacuee who arrived there on Monday with his wife and two daughters.
On Thursday, firefighters reported progress in battling the nearly 220-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) blaze. It was 40 percent contained, fire officials said. Crews slowed the flames' advance on populated areas.
California Army National Guard members, wearing white jump suits, looked for human remains in the burned rubble, among more than 450 rescue workers assigned to the task.
President Donald Trump plans to travel to California on Saturday to visit victims of the wildfires burning at both ends of the state. Trump is unpopular in much of Democratic-leaning California but not in Butte County, which he carried by 4 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
The Paradise fire once again underscored shortcomings in warning systems.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September requiring the development of statewide guidelines for Amber Alert-like warnings. A few Northern California communities are moving to install sirens after some wine country residents complained they didn't receive warnings to evacuate ahead of a deadly wildfire in October 2017 that destroyed 5,300 homes.
In 2008, the pair of wildfires that menaced Paradise destroyed 130 homes. No one was seriously hurt, but the chaos highlighted the need for a plan.
Paradise sits on a ridge between two higher hills, with only one main exit out of town. The best solution seemed to be to order evacuations in phases, so people didn't get trapped.
"Gridlock is always the biggest concern," said William Stewart, a forestry professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Authorities developed an evacuation plan that split the town of 27,000 into zones and called for a staggered exodus. Paradise even conducted a mock evacuation during a morning commute, turning the main thoroughfare into a one-way street out of town.
Last week, when a wind-whipped fire bore down on the town, the sheriff's department attempted an orderly, phased evacuation, instead of blasting a cellphone alert over an entire area.
Phil John, chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council, defended the evacuation plan he helped develop. John said that the wildfire this time was exceptionally fast-moving and hot, and that no plan was going to work perfectly.
When the fire reached the eastern edge of Paradise, six zones were ordered to clear out about 8 a.m. But almost simultaneously, the gusting winds were carrying embers the size of dinner plates across town, and structures were catching fire throughout the city. Less than an hour later, the entire town was ordered evacuated.
"It didn't work perfectly," John said Thursday. "But no one could plan for a fire like that."
Likewise, Stewart, the forestry professor, said the wildfire that hit Paradise disrupted the orderly evacuation plan because it "was moving too fast. All hell broke loose."
Satellite images show half the town on fire less than two hours after the first evacuation order.
Stewart said experts continue to debate how best to issue evacuation orders and no ideal solution has been found.
At the other end of the state, meanwhile, crews continued to gain ground against a blaze of more than 153 square miles (396 square kilometers) that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and other Southern California communities. At least three deaths were reported.
Chico, Nov 16 (AP/UNB) — Fire refugee Anna Goodnight sat on an overturned shopping cart Thursday in a Walmart parking lot as she ate scrambled eggs and tater tots while her husband drank a Budweiser.
The couple was trying to put a good face on a weeklong ordeal that left them uncertain of the fate of their home and now had them camping next to the store with hundreds of others forced to flee from a deadly Northern California wildfire . But William Goodnight finally lost it and began to cry.
"We're grateful. We're better off than some. I've been holding it together for her," he said, gesturing toward his wife. "I'm just breaking down finally."
With the Goodnights' hometown of Paradise destroyed, thousands of homes gone and untold neighbors dead, uncertainty hangs over survivors like smoke still clouding the sky over Chico. For those who have turned a grassy lot next to the Walmart into an informal campground, the anxiety of what lies ahead is even greater.
They have no roof overhead — just a filament of nylon that provides privacy but little security. It's chilly at night and they wonder what will happen if it rains and where they'll go if the camp closes Sunday, as planned.
"It's cold and scary," said Lilly Batres, 13, one of the few children here, who fled with her family from Magalia and don't know if they have a home to return to. "I feel like people are going to come into our tent."
Word began to spread Thursday that efforts were being made to phase out the camp by gradually removing donated clothing, food and toilets.
"The ultimate goal is to get these people out of tents, out of their cars and into warm shelter, into homes," said Jessica Busick, who was among the first volunteers when she and her husband started serving free food from their Truckaroni food truck last week. "We've always known this isn't a long-term solution."
It's unclear what will be done if people don't leave Sunday, but city officials don't plan to kick them out, said Betsy Totten, a Chico spokeswoman. Totten said volunteers — not the city — had decided to shut down the camp.
Walmart has added security to the location and is concerned about safety there, but it is not asking people to leave, spokeswoman LeMia Jenkins said.
Some, like Batres' family, had arrived after running out of money for a hotel. Others couldn't find a room or weren't allowed to stay at shelters with their dogs or, in the case of Suzanne Kaksonen, her two cockatoos.
Kaksonen couldn't remember how long she had been there, but said it felt like forever.
"I just want to go home," she said. "I don't even care if there's no home. I just want to go back to my dirt, you know, and put a trailer up and clean it up and get going. Sooner the better. I don't want to wait six months. That petrifies me."
Volunteers have shown up to help out and donations poured in. The informal nature of the camp was evident in the mix of order and disarray.
Racks of used clothes ranging from sweaters to plaid flannel shirts and tables covered with neatly organized pairs of boots, sneakers and shoes competed for space with shopping carts full of clothes, garbage bags stuffed with other donations, boxes of books, stuffed animals — yellow, purple and green teddy bears and a menagerie of other fuzzy critters — sitting on the pavement.
A sign tacked to a post says: "Short term help for evacuees. Please take what will help you through the next couple days. Be mindful of other evacuees!"
Food trucks offered free meals and a cook flipped burgers on a grill. There were portable toilets and some people were used the Walmart restrooms.
Someone walking through the camp Thursday offered free medicinal marijuana. Laura Whitaker, an evacuee from Paradise, said that while everyone had been helpful, she heard people were pretending to be evacuees and were selling drugs from tents.
More than 75 tents had popped up in the space since Matthew Flanagan arrived Friday and still more were sleeping in cars.
"We call it Wally World," Flanagan said, a riff off the store name. "When I first got here there was nobody here. And now it's just getting worse and worse and worse. There are more evacuees, more people running out of money for hotels."
Information for contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance was posted on a board that allowed people to write the names of those they believed were missing. Several of those names, including Flanagan's, had the word "Here" written next to them.
Melissa Contant, who drove from the San Francisco area to help out, advised people to register with FEMA as soon as possible and not to reveal too much information about whether they own or rent homes or if they have sufficient food and water, because that could delay aid.
"You're living in a Walmart parking lot — you're not OK," she told Maggie and Michael Crowder.
Michael Crowder, a former sheriff's deputy, had left behind a rental home in Magalia, a Sierra foothills town also ravaged by flames, on his motorcycle with this wife following in a truck with their pit bull, Coco.
They slept several nights in a Burger King parking lot and were running out of money and food when they went to buy a tent at Walmart and discovered the camp.
Tents had sold out, but a pastor and some volunteers showed up with the shelters and blankets and cots. A volunteer pitched a red tent for the Crowders in the dark.
"This is better than Burger King in some ways," Maggie Crowder said. "We were kind of scared to be part of this."
Melley reported from Los Angeles. AP journalist Terence Chea in Chico contributed to this story.
Magalia, Nov 15 (AP/UNB) — Cool weather helped fire crews gain ground Thursday against the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century, as the search went on for more bodies in the ashes of Paradise and surrounding communities. At least 56 people were killed, with 130 others missing a week after the flames swept through.
The nearly 220-square-mile (570-square-kilometer) blaze was 40 percent contained, the state fire agency said, and firefighters succeeded in slowing the flames' advance toward populated areas.
More than 450 searchers were assigned to look for remains in Paradise, which was all but destroyed, and outlying areas such as Magalia, a forested Northern California town of about 11,000. Many of the missing were elderly and from Magalia.
"If this town does recover, it's going to take many, many years," said Johnny Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who lives up the road from many burned homes.
Police drove around town, searching for those still in their homes and checking if they needed food and water.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Wednesday night that 130 people were on the missing list.
At the other end of the state, crews continued to battle wildfires in Southern California, including a blaze of more than 153 square miles (396 square kilometers) that destroyed over 500 structures in Malibu and nearby communities. At least three deaths were reported.
Officials in Northern California put the number of homes lost there at nearly 8,800, and the sheriff said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in 287 more searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops. The searchers used 22 cadaver dogs.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown on a visit to Paradise on Wednesday, saying it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
"Now is not the time to point fingers," Zinke said. "There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening." He cited higher temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
The governor said officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly .
It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that's what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point," he said.
While most of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia a sharp dividing line marked those who survived and those who did not.
"Magalia has so many trees. I honestly can't believe it just didn't get leveled," said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.
Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he heard the church made it through the blaze, though he did not know whether his home did.
"I've been able to account for all of the congregation," said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. "They're all over the place, but they got out in pretty good time."
Kim Bonini, one of those who got out safely Nov. 8, left after hearing someone on a bullhorn two blocks over urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her with only her car radio.
"My cell didn't work, my house phone didn't work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car," Bonini said from her daughter's home in Chico. "If I wouldn't have heard them two blocks down, I wouldn't have known I had to evacuate."
Magalia, Nov 15 (AP/UNB) — As the scope of a deadly Northern California wildfire set in, the sheriff said more than 450 people had now been assigned to comb through the charred remains in search for more bodies. The blaze has killed at least 56 people and authorities say 130 are unaccounted for.
Many of the missing are elderly and from Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 to the north of Paradise.
The one major roadway that runs through the mostly residential town is dotted with gas stations, a pizza shop, a hair salon and Chinese restaurant and convenience stores. There is no Main Street or town center. Resident Johnny Pohmagevich says a Rite Aid on the main road is as much of a center as the town has.
"When I say downtown I mean Paradise," said Pohmagevich, who opted to stay in Magalia even as fire closed in.
Pohmagevich, an 18-year Magalia resident who works at Timber Ridge Real Estate and lives just up the road from many burned homes, said he stayed to protect his employer's property from looters and to prepare some cabins and mobile homes so business tenants can live if they come back.
"If this town does recover, it's going to take many, many years," he said.
A week after the deadly Camp Fire struck, police teams drive around Magalia searching for those still in their homes, checking if they need any food and water. Crews from Pacific Gas & Electric are also in the area. With the death toll at 56, it is the deadliest wildfire in a century . There were also three fatalities from separate blazes in Southern California.
As officials raised the loss of homes to nearly 8,800 Wednesday, Sheriff Kory Honea said the task of recovering remains had become so vast that his office brought in another 287 searchers Wednesday, including National Guard troops, bringing the total number of searchers to 461 plus 22 cadaver dogs. He said a rapid-DNA assessment system was expected to be in place soon to speed up identifications of the dead, though officials have tentatively identified 47 of the 56.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined California Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday on a visit to the nearby leveled town of Paradise, telling reporters it was the worst fire devastation he had ever seen.
"Now is not the time to point fingers," Zinke said. "There are lots of reasons these catastrophic fires are happening." He cited warmer temperatures, dead trees and the poor forest management.
Brown, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump's policies, said he spoke with Trump, who pledged federal assistance.
"This is so devastating that I don't really have the words to describe it," Brown said, saying officials would need to learn how to better prevent fires from becoming so deadly .
It will take years to rebuild, if people decide that's what should be done, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The infrastructure is basically a total rebuild at this point," Long said.
While most of the town of Paradise was wiped out, in Magalia, a sharp dividing line marks those that survived and those that did not.
"Magalia has so many trees. I honestly can't believe it just didn't get leveled," said Sheri Palade, an area real estate agent.
For some, the areas left untouched offered a ray of hope.
Tom Driver, the office manager and elder at Magalia Community Church, said he had heard the church survived the blaze, though he did not know the status of his own home.
"I've been able to account for all of the congregation," said Driver, who is staying with family in Oakland. "They're all over the place but they got out in pretty good time."
Driver said many residents of Magalia work at the university in Chico or out of their homes. When the blaze spread into Paradise, residents there drove down and faced horrendous traffic. Driver said he and some others in Magalia were able to escape north on a winding narrow road that put them ahead of the fire, not behind it.
Kim Bonini heard someone on a bullhorn two blocks over on Thursday urging people to leave. The power in her home had gone out that morning, leaving her only with her car radio to tell her if she needed to leave.
"My cell didn't work, my house phone didn't work, nothing. Nothing except for me crawling into my car," Bonini said from her daughter's home in Chico on Wednesday. "If I wouldn't have heard them two blocks down I wouldn't have known I had to evacuate."
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, but it broke out around the time and place that a utility reported equipment trouble.
Malibu, Nov 15 (AP/UNB) — A body was found in a burned home Wednesday, and authorities were investigating to determine if it's the third victim of a huge wildfire in Southern California that destroyed hundreds of homes.
Two deaths were previously linked to the weeklong blaze in Ventura and Los Angeles counties that so far has scorched 152 square miles (394 square kilometers), engulfing homes, scenic canyon getaways and celebrity estates. The two unidentified adults were found dead last week in a car overtaken by flames.
The body was found in the ruins of a home in Agoura Hills that had been checked earlier by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who hadn't spotted anything in the rubble, authorities said.
Authorities were asked to check by concerned neighbors who had evacuated and returned to find the home burned to the ground and no sign of the owner — a man in his 70s who had chosen to stay — although his cars were still there, homicide Lt. Derrick Alfred said.
On Tuesday, searchers using a cadaver dog returned and discovered badly burned skeletal remains in what may once have been a porch, Alfred said.
The remains were recovered Wednesday, but they haven't yet been officially identified, Alfred said.
The so-called Woolsey Fire started Nov. 8 and quickly became one of the largest and most destructive fires in state history. Firefighters have made steady progress this week but warned many hotspots remain.
Before sunrise Wednesday there was a flare-up in rugged wilderness at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains as winds buffeted parts of the region. The flare-up sent a huge column of smoke out to sea as it burned in parklands well away from communities.
The National Weather Service said winds would slack off sufficiently during the afternoon to allow authorities to lower wildfire warnings from their highest "red flag" levels.
Forecasters cautioned, however, that low humidity levels would keep danger levels elevated.
Authorities allowed residents back into several more communities on Tuesday, including a section of Malibu. Other areas have been repopulated since the weekend. As many as 250,000 people were ordered out at the height of the fire.
"We are not out of the woods yet. We still have some incredibly tough conditions ahead of us," Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen said Tuesday.
The number of homes and other structures destroyed stood at 483 and another 86 were damaged. Those numbers were expected to rise. More than 80 percent of National Parks Service land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area was incinerated.
Some people who stayed behind in coastal communities that were cut off by road closures got supplies by boat. Gas, food, baby wipes and horse pellets were among the items brought ashore in the Paradise Cove area of Malibu. Some residents donned wetsuits and swam ashore with cases of water and beer.
"It's pretty cool. It's really amazing that people out there know that we're kind of stranded here in Malibu," Cherie Millford Smart said.
The area has not seen such a destructive blaze since 1993.
The fire has left an array of hazards, including trees ready to fall, downed power lines, toxins, and water main and gas leaks.
A forecast of possible rain next week would help firefighters but also raised the prospect of potential mud flows.
A new fire erupted late Tuesday about 75 miles (121 kilometers) to the east in the Fontana area of San Bernardino County, but firefighters reported good progress overnight, holding the blaze to 147 acres (59 hectares).
The cause of the Woolsey Fire remained under investigation.