Benjamin Spillman Reno Gazette Journal
Published 1:45 AM EST Nov 10, 2018
John Simon prepped for this fire his entire career.
But even Simon, a former battalion chief for the fire department in Paradise, Calif., was overwhelmed when it finally happened.
“I’m about ready to lose it,” said Simon, 62, from the rubble of a relative’s home.
Simon’s roots in this small, foothill town uphill from Chico run deep.
He graduated from Paradise High School and spent his career working his way up through the town’s fire department.
As a firefighter, Simon knew the dry, brushy canyons, where people built their homes to overlook the Feather River, could turn deadly with one spark.
But he never imagined the destruction would be so complete.
Within one day of ignition, the Camp Fire torched 90,000 acres, destroyed nearly 6,500 homes and 260 businesses and turned this once-scenic bedroom community into a charred wasteland. It killed nine people, and Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea thinks there will be more.
“I fear it will be a continuing duty of mine to update the figures,” Honea said. “This was a devastating fire; if you have been in the area, you know that.”
It’s the biggest fire in California history in terms of structures destroyed.
For people like Simon, who was on-scene as a volunteer animal rescuer, it wasn’t about statistics or rankings. It was about watching a fire upend a community where people lived to escape city life and enjoy the forest.
“This was the one that we planned for,” Simon said. “But we didn’t plan for it to impact the whole town.”
The fire flattened homes, churches and restaurants. It darkened the mid-day skies with smoke. It left in its wake the charred remains of vehicles abandoned on roads as flames bore down on their occupants.
“We always thought it would shoot across the bottom of Paradise,” Simon said. “But we never thought it would go side-to-side, top-to-bottom.”
Dry fuels and high winds fed the fire as it ripped across the landscape. Experts said in many ways it’s similar to mid-summer blazes despite the fact it struck in November.
But the region hasn’t seen significant rainfall in months and California, and much of the West, is becoming accustomed to a climate regime that favors longer, more intense wildfire seasons.
“Normally, climatologically, we would expect to have a sequence of storms delivering rainfall,” said Tim Chavez, a fire behavior analyst for CalFire. “That rain has not come.”
Firefighters are hopeful a lull in the winds on Saturday will be an opportunity for progress.
But the forecast for Sunday and Monday is dire. Forecasters have issued a red flag warning for Saturday and Sunday nights, which means they expect strong winds, warm temperatures and low humidity.
“The fuels will continue to get drier and drier and drier until we get a season-ending rainfall,” Chavez said.
Simon fears Paradise is gone.
He struggled to speak through tears as he surveyed the devastation. The smoke-darkened, mid-morning sky contributed to the sense of hopelessness.
“I hate to say it, I think it is doomed,” he said. “I don’t think it can recover.”
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