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‘Our town has burned’: Most of Paradise is lost after Camp Fire ravages the area

PARADISE — Paradise, some residents say, was the right name for the bucolic foothills town that attracted artists and retirees. Pine trees dotted the landscape between the homes. Giant wooden decks overlooked a sea of treetops. Family owned stores and a handful of restaurants lined the main street of this community of about 27,000, with its popular ice rink and thriving theater and performing arts scene.
But much of that, including many homes of its residents, have burned to the ground in the Camp Fire that swept through the town on Thursday and Friday, killing at least five people. On Friday, as reality settled in, trees continued to burn and smolder on the road leading back into this decimated town.
A day earlier, this was the road upon which they had to escape, in a mad dash as the fire quickly closed in on them. Traffic backed up for hours on the few roads out of town, as people attempted to flee to Chico and Skyway.
Even the fire station near Wagstaffe Road didn’t survive, standing Friday morning as nothing more than a burned-out shell. Gone too were most of the homes between Skyway and Pentz Road on the eastern side of Paradise.
Johnny Dykes, 62, and Tracy Benefield, 58, prepared for 16 years to buy their house off of Skyway. Sitting on almost three acres, tucked back off the road about 150 feet, the property was their dream, they said — a “jewel.”
The first news reports they heard about the fire came hours after it had started around 6:30 a.m. Thursday. Earlier, they had heard transformers popping and the sound of propane gas tanks exploding at nearby homes, but they didn’t know the magnitude of what was coming.
Benefield started making calls. Her seven children all live in Paradise and nearby Magalia — both of which were being evacuated. She took off to round up her family — all of whom were safe, she said — while Dykes packed a truck full of their belongings.
As he drove away that afternoon, officials suggested he leave his truck and evacuate with them —- fewer vehicles on the road would make it easier to evacuate. Instead, he returned to the house to get his motorcycle and started down Skyway, riding on sidewalks to get around traffic. He pulled over to a shopping center, hoping to wait out the fire in the hopes that he could return home. But as he saw flames engulf nearby apartment buildings, and then a Dutch Bros. coffee drive-thru, he knew he had to go.
He rode through walls of flame down Skyway, trying to reach safety.
“I’ve never seen anything else like it,” he said. In fact, he really couldn’t see anything. Smoke filled his eyes and flames were everywhere. Almost miraculously, he said, he made it through the bursts of fire to safety in Chico.
He and Benefield spent the night at Neighborhood Church of Chico — a Red Cross evacuation shelter — with their 15-year-old wolf-shepherd mix. Now, they wait to learn the fate of their dream house, knowing it likely did not escape the flames.
“If we have to start over,” Dykes said with a shrug and a smile, “we will,”
But Benefield worries more about what else remains in the area, and the ability of the town to rally. Paradise is a small town, she said. About 90 miles north of Sacramento, it doesn’t get a lot of attention from people outside the immediate area. If most of its businesses and homes are destroyed, how will it ever rebuild?
“Our town has burned,” she said. “It’s our home.”
The news reports and photos are bleak. Almost 110 square miles had burned by early Friday morning. More than 50,000 people in Butte County were evacuated. At least 2,000 structures were destroyed, and with only 5 percent containment, thousands more are at risk.
But nowhere felt the force of destruction worse than Paradise.
“How will they sustain life in that community?” Benefield wondered.
Paradise has experienced destructive fires before. In the 2008 Humboldt fire, 74 homes in Paradise were destroyed.
Joann O’Dell, 71, remembers that fire. It was bad, she said, but nothing like this.
O’Dell has lived in the area for about 25 years, brought there by her husband’s former job at Pacific Gas & Electric. They liked the outdoorsy feel of Paradise, she said — especially the 100-foot pine trees around the houses. Her husband had fallen in love with outdoor sports.
The outdoor beauty of the town attracts many people, residents say. About 12 miles east of Chico, Paradise is situated in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with panoramic views of the canyons in which the fire started. It was a gold mining town in the late 19th century, and according to the town’s website, the first inhabitants were the Maidu tribes who made the Paradise Ridge their summer and fall home.
After the population in Paradise swelled to over 20,000 from 5,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, its residents decided to incorporate, which happened officially in 1979. The town will celebrate its 39th birthday as an incorporated town on Nov. 27.
Today, the parks and pine-filled outdoors, plus the Gold Nugget Museum, are a draw for visitors. Retirees like the sense of community and the quiet, some said.
But the quiet afforded by the limited roads that wind through the town proved hazardous for people trying to escape this fire.
It took O’Dell and her family four hours to travel just a few miles out of town.
Recently, O’Dell moved to Butte Valley, near Butte College. Her daughter, Kim O’Dell, was in the process of buying the old family home in Paradise. She had moved into the house off of Sylvan Road a few days before the fire struck.
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At about 8:30 a.m., after hearing about the fire, Joann brought a trailer to help Kim collect the still unpacked boxes sitting in the garage. By the time she arrived, the fire was too close to the house. The backyard trees were already on fire. They rushed from the house, forgetting the bag of clothing and supplies Kim had packed.
The hope now is that Joann’s house in Butte Valley survives. They won’t know for sure until the evacuation order is lifted.
“But we’re alive,” Joann said.

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