Article Category: Pillars | Places | SC23
Paradise, California Wildfire

Paradise, California Wildfire

Posted Friday, Mar 01
Written by Alice Adams
Photography by Kyle Nelson
Southern Calls, Vol. 23, March 2019

Nestled at 1,700 feet in the northwest foothills of the Central Valley in the Sierras, Paradise, California, is 100 miles northeast of the capital city of Sacramento, 10 miles north of Oroville and eight miles east of the Chico metro area.

Located in Butte County, Paradise meanders for 18.3 miles over a wide ridge. Deep canyons – carved out by the west branch of the Feather River to the east and Butte Creek to the west – form the city’s natural boundaries.

Until the Camp Fire on Nov. 8 of last year, the population of Paradise remained steady at 26,200 souls. When it was finally contained on Nov. 25, the ravenous inferno had destroyed more than 18,000 structures, taken 87 lives and injured 12 civilians and five firefighters. Ten local residents remain unaccounted for.

The Camp Fire, as it is called, was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history and in U.S. history since the Cloquet fire of 1918. Described as a firestorm, wildly roiling through the town of Paradise, the fire torched and killed everything in its path within four hours. Insured damage – as of Nov. 19, 2018 – was estimated to be between $7.5 billion and $10 billion.

Fire destroys Kentucky Fried Chicken across street from Rose Chapel Mortuary
Fire destroys Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from Rose Chapel Mortuary

Funeral director and embalmer Eric Scott Smith, 56, and his wife, Laurie, made Paradise their home as soon as Eric was licensed. The 23-year-old had graduated from San Francisco College of Mortuary Science in 1981. 

Hearing of a job opening through a friend, Eric applied to Fred Cosgrove, owner of Sheer Memorial Chapel in Oroville. The position was filled, but Cosgrove was so impressed with the young director that he offered him a job as director/embalmer at Rose Chapel, established in Paradise by the Cosgrove family in 1958. It’s been a career-long assignment, and Eric now manages Rose Chapel Mortuary and Crematory in Paradise and Sheer Memorial Chapel in Oroville.

Eric is currently the National Funeral Directors Association Policy Board Member for California. 

The Smiths have two adult daughters – Kaitlyn, who lives in Tacoma, Washington, and Kelcie who recently moved back home and was waiting for her new apartment in Chico to become available. Kelcie’s pet cats were both victims of the fire, as was the family’s entire home, save a stone fireplace and chimney – 30 years of accumulated household goods and memories gone literally in seconds.

The remainder of the neighborhood consists of assorted carcasses of burned-out appliances and the partially-melted frames of late-model cars and trucks. The newest family living in the Smiths’ Magalia neighborhood moved in only two weeks before the fire. None of the neighbors plan to rebuild.

Burned businesses surround Rose Chapel Mortuary in Paradise, California; (1) Rose Chapel Mortuary, (2) KFC ruins, (3) This & That Consignment ruins
Burned businesses surround Rose Chapel Mortuary in Paradise, California;
(1) Rose Chapel Mortuary, (2) KFC ruins, (3) This & That Consignment ruins

Eric Smith pulled out of his driveway to make the trip to Sheer Memorial Chapel in Oroville that Thursday morning, just as he had every workday for the past 30 years. But on this day, something was different. The air seemed heavier than usual.

“It seemed foggy or cloudy, and Paradise is usually above the fog,” he remembered. “Otherwise, nothing seemed much out of the ordinary … until I reached the street and headed for work. Then I saw a cloud of smoke, even stopped to take a few pictures with my phone.”

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