Residents of Paradise, California, have had to flee their homes in the past due to wildfires in the area. But this time, the deadly Camp Fire blaze has left many wondering whether they’ll ever be able to return to the once-picturesque town.
“This had to be one of the most surreal experience I’ve ever had,” Cal Fire firefighter Josh Smario, 23, tells PEOPLE. “Standing in what used to be my house while I’m working to save the town I live in. The house I thought my son would experience his first years of his life in. Then hopping right back in the engine to go fight the blaze that took my house and my grandparents’ house.”
A firefighter standing the ruins of his own home. A World War II vet smashing a garage window to get to his car and escape to safety. Generations of families burned out of their homes. A town leveled. The tsunami of tragic stories continue pouring out from the deadliest fire in California history.
“It wiped out all of my family’s houses, but thank God they all made it out safe,” Smario says. “It’s a war zone. When you saw how many bodies didn’t make it out, I could care less about the things that were lost.”
The Camp Fire — named for nearby Camp Creek — broke out in Butte County on Thursday, killing at least 48 people, burning through 130,000 acres and destroying more than 7,500 buildings, most of them homes, by Tuesday, CalFire reported. Communities throughout the Bay Area and Northern California have come together to bring aid to those forced out by the fires.
Paradise is lost. Nearby towns have been devastated. Pets have been displaced. Hundreds are unaccounted for and crews are sifting through the rubble discovering bodies in what looks like a battlefield.
Colleen Arnold, 70, had just moved to Paradise in April to help care for her ailing older sister. She was only able to grab two pictures of her grandchildren and a few belongings when the fires began.
“I lost my car,” Arnold tells PEOPLE. “I lost everything but what I have in this tiny Trader Joe’s bag.”
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As they fled the flames, they could feel the intense heat of the fire chasing them.
“I was in the backseat of the car and getting warm from the fire,” Arnold says. “I saw people getting out of cars because [the cars] were catching on fire. People were stopping, trying to fit them into their cars to get them out.”
Arnold says her sister lost her husband, a California Highway Patrolman, in an accident a few years ago. They made sure to grab his urn, with her sister saying, “You are coming with me!”
“Her grandkids said, ‘Did you get grandpa out?’ and she said, ‘Yes I did!’ ” Arnold recalls.
‘I Don’t Know What the Future Holds’
Chuck Piazza, 93, a World War II vet who once marched with Gen. Patton, says he and his neighbor had to break into his garage to get his car out to escape the oncoming firestorm.
“I got up like every other morning when my neighbor called and said you have five minutes to leave the house,” Piazza recalls. “I panicked, I grabbed what I thought I would need, thank God I didn’t have pets, but the power was off so I couldn’t get my garage door opened.”
He and his neighbor managed to free the car. Then, what was usually a 20-minute drive took Piazza eight hours as darkness surrounded him and others attempting to drive away from the flames as smoke blocked any source of light.
“I’m glad I had gas in my tank or it could have been worse,” says the widower who drove by himself to safety. “I had nothing to eat, but I finally made it to a shelter.”
There, his longtime friend John Sensiba met Piazza and took him to his home. Sensiba tells PEOPLE that his friend will always have a place in his home, though he knows Piazza wants to remain independent.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me. I know my place is gone, unless there was a Godsend,” Piazza says. “But I’m insured and have a small union pension, so I’m not destitute. I hadn’t expected anything like this to happen to me. But I have a few dollars to keep me going. Without John, though, I’d be really lost.”
Nicole Lawhun, 44, had just dropped her kids — ages 17, 12, 10 and 7 — off at school when she got a call from her sister saying she and her family needed to evacuate immediately. Her family living on the property included her husband, her children, her blind mother, her mother-in-law and her husband’s cousin.
“By the time I came back home at 7:45 there were flames in my backyard. I grabbed the kids and as many pets as we could,” Lawhun says. “We had an evacuation plan, but this happened too quickly.”
‘Right Now We Have Nothing’
Lawhun’s church provided the family with a 10-person travel trailer so they would have a place to live as they plan their next steps.
“We have insurance, but right now we have nothing,” Lawhun says.
The Camp Fire is one of four blazes plaguing the state. The Woolsey, Hill, and Sierra Fires have collectively burned hundreds of thousands of acres and two people died as a result of the Woolsey blaze. No town has been hit harder by the fires than Paradise, and 53-year-old Monia Pezzi says she and her family have been staying with friends since narrowly escaping to safety.
“GO, GO, GO!” was what Pezzi, heard when she answered the phone. She had already left for her job as a crisis counselor with FEMA when she heard about the fire from her son-in-law. “Had I not gotten that call, I would not have been able to get back home.”
She raced back to her Paradise home to warn her brother and wake up her son.
“I told him the whole town is on fire,” the mother of four and grandmother of seven recalls to PEOPLE. Pezzi, whose children and grandchildren all live in or around Paradise, grabbed a basket of clothes, some photo albums and her dogs. “It was pitch black and I could hear propane tanks exploding.”
She adds: “We have been evacuated before, but the sheriff usually comes through to tell us. This time, nothing. It’s a little mountain town with dead ends and narrow roads. We got out with almost nothing and I’m sure my house is gone.”
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On Monday, Pezzi and her family were delivering supplies to her neighbors.
The Camp Fire was only 35 percent contained by Wednesday and firefighters have been working tirelessly to quell the flames. Many have said that they never expected the fire to grow so big, including Gretchen Goslin who tells PEOPLE that she became concerned when she saw the skies growing darker due to smoke around her home in Paradise.
Goslin called her husband, Dean Goslin, who works for the local utility company.
“I’m coming right home,” he said. “It’s a large fire.”
‘There’s Nothing There Now’
Goslin says the sky was almost black with ash and debris and “it sounded like a train was coming.” She grabbed her granddaughter, two pets, paperwork and her computer to escape. Dean stayed behind for two more hours trying to save their home, but had to escape.
By 10:30 a.m., Goslin’s house was gone, and so were the homes of her two sisters and her mom.
“People were fleeing in their cars and tires were catching on fire,” she recalls to PEOPLE. “The people who had already left for work and were off the mountain couldn’t get back to save anything.”
Goslin says that the area has a large elderly community and fears have been raised that most were not able to escape the flames in time.
“Most of the people on the missing lists are in their 80s and 90s,” she says. “I work at a nursing home and there were a lot of people there. It was chaos. The hospital is gone.”
The Goslins found a rental home in nearby Chico and her whole family is sharing it for now. She has no plans to return to Paradise to rebuild. “There’s nothing there now.”
To help victims of the California wildfires, visit the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, the California Fire Foundation and the American Red Cross, for more information.
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