Harrowing escapes, heartbreaking loss in fire-scorched northern California

Residents of Paradise, Calif., who already faced harrowing escapes as their town was consumed by flames, are now struggling to cope with the lost lives and homes.

Residents of town levelled by blaze take stock of destruction

Sheriff's deputies recover the remains of a victim of the Camp Fire on Saturday, in Paradise, Calif. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

In the days since a ferocious, wind-whipped wildfire began tearing through the northern California town of Paradise, residents who stayed behind to try to save their property or who managed to get back to their neighbourhoods despite mandatory evacuation orders found cars incinerated and homes reduced to rubble.

Whole neighbourhoods and the foothill town's business district were razed by a blaze that threatened to explode again Sunday after high winds returned to the area.

Residents who already faced harrowing escapes are now struggling to cope with the lost lives and homes.

At least 25 people have died and thousands of buildings and been lost due to fires raging across California.

'We're on our own'

Cathy Fallon described the fire that destroyed her house as a "big tsunami." She stayed behind and was able to save her 14 horses and barn using a hose, but she lost her house and her husband wound up hospitalized the morning after the fire. He remained in hospital Saturday after fears he had had a heart attack.

Two of her dogs and nine cats died in the fire.

"It was really scary when the rush of a huge amount of fire came up through the canyon at our house and barn," she said. "But it didn't seem to be able to jump to the barn, and I just kept watering the barn and watering any areas in the barn that caught on fire."

The Camp Fire burns along a ridge near Big Bend, Calif., on Saturday. Crews working to contain the blaze overnight faced deteriorating weather conditions as winds picked up and humidity dropped. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

She added, "It's a dangerous situation. I remember my son saying, 'Hey! There's no firefighters. We're on our own here.' I'm like, 'Yeah.' We were definitely on our own."

She and her son, Gabriel, were sleeping in the horse stall and had no power or water.

Staying put, despite orders

Neighbours Courtenay Jenvey and Glen Walther ignored evacuation orders and fought the blaze with hoses.

They were able to save their homes and two other homes, but all other houses for at least a kilometre in all directions were smouldering foundations, they said.

"Surreal, that's the best word I could describe it by," said Walther, who ventured out to see the neighbourhood on Saturday for the first time.

"I didn't even want to go out, but when I did, by the time I was a quarter-mile down the road down there, I'm bawling like a cut calf."

Cathy Fallon sits near her dog Shiloh, a two-year-old golden retriever, whose face was burned in the fire. (Paul Elias/Associated Press)

They also rescued a chocolate Labrador who had been left behind by its owner.

The dog has been acting as a guard dog and has lifted their spirits, Jenvey said.

The dog chased squirrels, chewed on sticks and sprinted in the black ash in Jenvey's charred orchard of black olive trees as he talked.

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Jenvey said he thought he was going to die as he was fighting to save his house, and at one point realized he had no choice but to stay — all his exits were blocked by flame.

Leaves were catching fire and floating down onto roofs, and the howling fire sounded like a jetliner taking off, he said.

"It was pitch black, black as midnight," he said, his eyes red-rimmed from exhaustion and smoke. "We had active fire, sparks and embers hitting the roof, chunks of bark about a half-inch [1.5 cm] in diameter, flaming, that were hitting us. It was like rain, and so we were just hitting everything we could that started up as fast as we could with garden hoses."

Surrounded by flames

Shawna Howard, a Paradise resident, said she found out Saturday that her parents' home didn't survive the flames.

"You just sit here in a fog and think you're going to wake up," she said.

She recalled flames lining both sides of the roadway as she fled with her 12-year-old daughter.

Araya Cipollini cries near the charred remains of her family's home in Paradise, where entire neighbourhoods were levelled by flames. (John Locher/Associated Press)

"The heat, the heat was unreal," she said.

At one point, Howard said she thought they would not make it out alive.

"I was praying out loud the entire time," she said. When she would stop, her daughter would make her start up again, she said.