Article Category: Places | SC23

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 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.”

“Up here, the Forest Service is always burning off undergrowth, so it’s not unusual to see flames,” Smith said.

He didn’t know that he had closed his garage and driven out of his driveway for the last time. Nor was he expecting the call from his wife later that afternoon, saying she had escaped the fireball of flames from the Camp Fire with nothing but the clothing she was wearing. But there was more: The home they had lived in the past 30 years was gone. Everything they owned had been consumed by the largest, costliest, most destructive fire in California history.

Eric described the community as tight-knit.

“When we moved to Paradise 30 years ago, it was mostly a retirement community. Now we have a mix of retirees, young couples and couples with growing families. It’s also become a bedroom community for Chico,” he explained.

Fortunately only minor damage at Rose Chapel Mortuary
Fortunately only minor damage at Rose Chapel Mortuary

Like many California towns, the entire community of Paradise comes together to support its high school sports teams throughout the year, along with its unique events: Johnny Appleseed Day, started in 1888 to celebrate the oldest harvest in the state, and Gold Nugget Days, which began in 1959 to recognize the discovery of a 54-pound gold nugget 150 years earlier during the California gold rush.

Eric is the manager of locations 25 miles apart in Paradise and Oroville, that together serve between 400 and 700 families each year.

Eric Smith, Manager | Rose Chapel Mortuary | Paradise, California
Eric Smith, Manager | Rose Chapel Mortuary | Paradise, California

“Driving directly to Oroville, about a half-hour down the road, I had begun to see how fast the fire was growing,” he said, “and when I got to work, the burn had reached the edge of Paradise. That meant I couldn’t get back into town.”

As the day progressed, Eric received reports from family and friends, including one news flash saying the highways around Chico were blocked, which meant he couldn’t return to his family.

“Nobody knew – or was saying – how bad conditions were. TV news was reporting people had been trapped in their cars and lost their lives,” he remembered. “When my wife called, saying she and my daughter were safe, I breathed a sigh of relief. That we had lost the house seemed secondary. Things were happening so fast, it would take more than three weeks for the fire’s toll to become real.”

The second day – Nov. 9 – Eric began getting reports that more than 100,000 acres had burned in record time. Winds and erratic fire behavior were causing major problems for the more than 5,500 first responders and firefighters on the scene. Containment now was secondary to the task of evacuating citizens – literally saving lives.

“We got word a competing mortuary had lost everything, but we had transported their cases before the building burned….and when we made those removals, we got our first look at the destruction,” the director said.

“On the way into town, we saw massive power poles shattered. Burned out cars had been pushed out of the roadway like a snowplow would push snow out of the way to make the highway passable. Honestly, it looked like a scene from the movie, ‘Mad Max.’ By that time, it was easier to describe what remained rather than what was gone.”

One of the buildings destroyed by the flames was Paradise Ridge Senior Center, which was built for the community by the grandmother of Rose Chapel and Sheer Memorial owner Pamela Cosgrove Gray.

Left: First line of defense on Pentz Road  Right: Fire Storm Coming – Skyway Memorial Park, Paradise, California (photo by Eric Smith)
Left: First line of defense on Pentz Road  
Right: Fire Storm Coming – Skyway Memorial Park, Paradise, California (photo by Eric Smith)

Four days after the fire began, the funeral homes were flooded with calls.

“Families were desperately looking for the missing, asking if we had the bodies. Having lived here since I was 23, I had grown up with so many who were now trying to make sense of how their lives had been forever changed in a matter of minutes. It was hard for me. I couldn’t imagine how survivors felt, losing a loved one. Truly, I was one of the lucky ones. Like so many in Paradise, I had lost everything, but I hadn’t lost a family member,” Eric said.

Those human remains found by search-and-recovery teams under fallen beams and among the ashes had to be sent to Sacramento for positive identification. Many families went to Chico for DNA testing to help identify the dead.

Once a DNA match was made, the remains were transported from Sacramento to Butte County, where the sheriff or coroner notified families of the positive ID before the remains could be removed to the family’s mortuary of choice. It was an arduous and anxious wait for families of the missing.

At the time of our interviews with Eric in early December, 87 fatalities had been recorded, and 10 Paradise residents were still missing.

Left only with the clothing they were wearing the day of the fire, Eric, Laurie and Kaitlyn found shelter in a borrowed, 38-foot travel trailer parked in a KOA park. Eric said the trailer felt smaller every day. Most of their household items came with the trailer.

“You’d be surprised at what you can do with a pot and two skillets,” the director joked.

Laurie, a dental hygienist/assistant by profession, lost her job when the office where she was employed was devoured by the fire. With colleagues she had worked with for years displaced – some of them miles from Paradise – and with her husband’s work demands heavier than usual, she was definitely feeling the emotional impact of the sudden changes in her life.

There was a bright spot for the Smith family. Their family cat, who was missing several days after the fire, returned home and was found by a California Department of Forestry fire fighter (whose father was one of Eric’s best friends).

“Our cat loved being outdoors as a kitten. Now it stays indoors and isn’t too excited about going outside, preferring to stay near us most all the time,” the director said.

Survivor - The family cat, “Little Buddy,” was rescued seven days following the fire.
Survivor – The family cat, “Little Buddy,” was rescued seven days following the fire.

During a recent trip to his homesite on a rainy morning, Eric found his brother’s POW medal in the ashes. His Purple Heart is still missing, something the director said could be easily replaced. Previously, he found items he had been given by his father and grandfather.

“AIthough we didn’t realize it at the time, I think that trip was to say goodbye and to move forward,” he said.

The director said replacing paperwork, identification, Social Security cards and other documents required standing in line for hours because so many others were trying to accomplish the same task.

“Memories”...  Eric Smith
“Memories”… Eric Smith

“For Christmas this year, shopping was overwhelming, so we only bought for our young nieces and nephews,” Eric admitted. “Going to the grocery store is also difficult. It’s our new normal to see empty shelves. It’s hard to get what you need, simply because so many are displaced and supplies go just so far.”

“We’re learning to live with the fact that nothing is permanent, few routines are familiar and commutes are a lot longer,” he confessed.

Living situations are not likely to improve immediately for displaced families like Eric’s. Before the fire, the vacancy rate for rentals or properties for sale was around 3 percent. That number, of course, has diminished with the demand for housing. Eric said he and his family are 310th on the list for any kind of housing that becomes available.

“Several years ago, the Lake Oroville Dam collapsed, so the area’s rental property was mostly absorbed by workers on that project,” explained the director. “There are also government workers and FEMA personnel now living here. That means displaced families have no place to go.”

“All lost and starting over” ... Eric Smith
“All lost and starting over” … Eric Smith

As for the Eric Smith family, rebuilding is a question mark, not knowing where or how long it might take.

“The funeral home’s business plans call for opening a satellite location in Chico because we want to continue serving families we have served in the past and families who have pre-need contracts. Without question, we’ll live in the surrounding area and continue to serve these communities, but we may not live in Paradise,” he said with palpable sadness.

He added that as someone who has always enjoyed the outdoors, he’ll miss the deer, turkeys and occasional bears that often visited their previous property.

In the meantime, Eric said he and owner Pamela Cosgrove Gray expect to return to the Rose Chapel Mortuary and Crematory in Paradise as soon as utilities are restored.

At the moment, all services are being held in Oroville, some of them awaiting the re-opening of area cemeteries.

“Aside from power concerns in Paradise, there are also safety concerns,” the director pointed out, “and there are no churches and no florists.

“Until you go through a disaster of this magnitude, you don’t realize that for all practical purposes, the entire city will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Everywhere you go, crews are working. Cal-Tran, for example, is already replacing traffic lights and highway guardrails destroyed by the fire.”

He’s heard estimates that approximately half the population of Paradise will return.

“It’s going to be a long, slow process, with city fathers saying one to three years is realistic,” Eric pointed out. “While some residents won’t be coming back, new people will always be coming in.”

He said it feels good to spend time with others going through the same trials.

“Night before last, the Paradise Rotary got together. As we talked, we found we all still feel like it’s only been a week when, in reality, it’s been more than a month. We also agreed that there’s so much to do after a disaster, you never think about so much you have to go through before you do anything to help yourself.”

“Being able to help others keeps my spirits up, keeps my mind off my own stuff, like having to start over,” Eric admitted. “But as I said, I really don’t have it so bad. So many have lost family members, not to mention their homes, jobs, cars – literally everything that matters, and the whole experience has really opened my eyes. I see now there’s a lot more I can do to help people. It’s really been life-changing for me, my family and for everyone.”

Rose Chapel’s temporary home
Rose Chapel’s temporary home
LR- Staff: Colleen Sweeney, Lorna Mastelotto, Pam Gray (owner), Eric Smith (manager), Dennis Bohneman, Kyle Clark
LR- Staff: Colleen Sweeney, Lorna Mastelotto, Pam Gray (owner), Eric Smith (manager), Dennis Bohneman, Kyle Clark

Fast Facts about Funeral Service in Paradise

• Until 1978, the state of California required only the facility to be licensed. Funeral    directors/embalmers must now be licensed as well.

• In the case of an emergency or disaster, the state of California will pay up to $10,000 for funeral expenses.

• FEMA also helps with funding funerals after a disaster, but this funding requires more paperwork.

• Since the Camp Fire swept through Paradise, Funeral Director Eric Smith has been making    arrangements by fax, phone and email because of the distances displaced persons have to travel.

• Since families began calling the funeral home, shortly after the fire began, Smith has kept a list and checks in  with these families each week, checking to see how they’re doing and offering any help they may need.

• “The pain and anguish families are experiencing comes not so much that a family member is gone    but how they were lost,” said Smith.

• “I’m finding many people want to reminisce. It helps talking about it. It’s how we get through and    do the business required as we go along,” he added.

• Smith is most surprised by “the number of people from my profession who have reached out to me, calling to see how I am and offering to help. It’s amazing. I always knew the best people were in funeral service. Now I know you’re never alone. You’ll always have help.”

• One more positive from a disaster: “I see so much good being done for the community. People helping, serving food and worried about making things good for others.” 

• You Can Help the Rotary Club of Paradise’s Camp Fire Relief Efforts. Donate to:

   The Paradise Rotary Foundation
   c/o Matthews, Hutton and Warren, CPAs
   2639 Forest Ave., Suite 110
   Chico, California 95928

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