“This might be the last day of the 2018 fire season,” an incident commander said at the Tuesday, November 20, morning briefing for the 4,665 personnel fighting the Camp Fire. On November 8, the wildfire destroyed the majority of Paradise, California and continued to burn in the 10 days after. Yet on Wednesday, a shift in weather is forecast to bring 3 to 6 inches of precipitation to the surrounding area. So much rain should effectively extinguish what remains of the fire that has killed a confirmed 79 people as of Tuesday morning, officials said, but it could also bring other consequences.
The National Weather Service on Tuesday issued a warning of “flash floods and debris flows” for the burn areas of the Camp Fire — and other fires throughout California. The inclement conditions could affect the work being done in Paradise preparing the town for residents to be allowed to return.
“We’re going to have mudslides and debris flows,” Cal Fire Public Information Officer Rick Crawford said on Tuesday. Yet throughout the day, sunny skies and warm temperatures meant a strange hum of activity continued in Paradise itself. More burned remnants of cars and buildings were searched for human remains, while at the same time utility crews and cleanup specialists — many from utility provider PG&E — worked to clear downed trees and fix power lines. Teams in white protective suits combed through wreckage, sometimes aided by cadaver dogs — the count of the dead and the preparations to rebuild happening all at once.
Paradise residents have not been permitted to return to the town, and most have little to return to. Even among the few whose homes survived, most have not been able to even retrieve belongings. Cars that weren’t burned remain where they were parked, whether in lots or in driveways. Military guards and police man checkpoints on the roads into town, keeping access severely restricted for fear of looting, and to protect the ongoing search for victims.
Rain and mudslides might slow work through the rest of the week, but there could be some benefits for searchers as well. “It’ll allow the dogs to have a clearer scent trail,” Crawford said. Officials hope that the death toll will not rise much higher, but on Tuesday, over 700 people remained officially missing. It is not confirmed whether any members of the Paradise Seventh-day Adventist Church were among the missing, but reports indicate that most, if not all, church members have been accounted for.
Many of the church members have taken shelter in neighboring Chico, where members of the Chico Adventist Church have taken families into their homes and provided RVs, or allowed RVs brought in from other towns to park on their property. For the members of the Paradise church, life is still defined by many uncertainties, though perhaps fewer than for some other Paradise evacuees.
On Tuesday, a large tent encampment remained in Chico on a vacant lot next to the Walmart. With the impending rain, officials worked Tuesday evening to help evacuees move to shelter at the Butte County Fairgrounds. Some evacuees loaded their possessions back into cars or boarded shuttle busses. But many also appeared hesitant to move from where they had established camp.
According to members of the Paradise and Chico churches, the network of people willing to open their homes has kept Adventist evacuees from having to join the tent encampment or other overcrowded shelters.
Alex Aamodt is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He studied English and Spanish at Walla Walla University, and also works as a rock climbing and mountaineering guide in California.
Main image: All that remains of the Paradise church is the church office sign, oddly untouched amid the burn.
In-line image: The tent city of evacuees on Tuesday evening. Some appeared to be leaving for better shelter, some staying.
Photos courtesy of the author.
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