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Nearly a month after the Camp Fire began razing their towns, Californians return to ruin

Brenda Russell sifts through her family's burned belongings in the ruins of their garage.

MASON TRINCA/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By SCOTT WILSON | The Washington Post | Published: December 5, 2018

MAGALIA, Calif. — What mattered most to Iva Shettlesworth, as she drove up the burned hill to the house where she had lived for the past decade, was her mother's wedding ring.

At the end of Chatham Court, she and her fiance picked through the ash on a chilly morning. And there, where her room had been, were the remains of the metal box that held her mother's jewelry. The ring was partly melted, but recognizable as the one her mother wore before she died five years ago.

"We've waited darn near a month to get back up here and find this," Shettlesworth said. "The rest is a mess. But we found what we wanted."

Just beyond the edge of Paradise, the city next door that burned from end to end, the first people who fled their homes in this community three weeks ago are being allowed to return and rummage through what remains of where they lived.

The fire burned more than 10,000 buildings in north central California, most of them homes here in the Sierra foothills, before firefighters finally corralled it last week. At least 88 people were killed when the blaze blew through the town of Paradise and the community of Magalia, about a quarter the size of its neighbor. The cause is unknown.

Compounding the loss for the thousands of evacuees has been the purgatory of waiting to return. Search and rescue workers, utility companies and other cleanup operations have been trying to make these ruined communities safe for even the briefest of surveys — arduous, grim work that is still underway.

Paradise will not be open to the public for some time, the city is still a maze of closed roads and ruin, with workers in cranes trimming trees and fixing power lines.

But here in Magalia, the sanctioned return began Monday, and it has been halting. Many traveled from family homes hours away to get in as soon as the town opened. For some it is a search for keepsakes, for others a form of therapy to put an image to the imagined destruction.

For most everyone, it is simply sad.

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"We'd seen in a video that the house was gone, but we're back to see what mementos of the house we still have," said Aliza Wieger, 19, who with her boyfriend Tommy Goucher, toured the ruins of the home she grew up in off Norwich Road.

It was a triple-wide trailer, as many of the homes here were. The house next door survived, and so did the one behind it. Nothing remained of the Wiegers' place, and Aliza wept quietly as she walked through the site with the home's charred street number in her hands.

Goucher held two rocks in his hands — one painted with flowers, the other with a coiled snake. Wieger's grandfather had painted them, and they were on a small list of things that she wanted to make sure she recovered if possible.

"This is the only salvageable stuff — rocks," Goucher said.

The two do not plan to rebuild here. The chaotic evacuation is a memory that angers Goucher, who said he only learned about the approaching blaze from a community Facebook page. Only those who signed up for cellphone alerts received them.

"There was no plan up here," he said. "People were driving into each other [as they evacuated]. It was crazy. We're going to start again somewhere else."

The newly elected state legislature convened in Sacramento for the first time this week, and proposals to strengthen fire protection and examine the liability of Pacific Gas & Electric and other big utility companies are priorities. So is getting the warning system right.

"We can't leave this to the local communities any more," said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat whose district includes Napa and some of the other wine country areas that burned a year ago. "We'll work with them, but there has to be a framework that works for all of California. In every single incident, the warning system has been inadequate."

Many who returned to Magalia were the adult children of parents who cannot yet make the trip, either because of distance or health. This, like Paradise, was a place for retirement, and the fire has scattered families across the state.

In a mask to protect against the risks of toxic fumes from the debris, Michael, who declined to give his last name, looked over his father's home. He snapped photos with his iPhone to email them later to his family.

His first car — a 1988 Porsche 944S — sat burned out in what had been the garage. Michael, 27, was storing it there when the fire came. He said he did not know if his father would rebuild the home, but he hoped seeing it would settle his mind about the blaze and its aftermath.

"I can't stop thinking about it, even after all this time," Michael said. "But now I've seen it, so I hope that helps."

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For Jerry Ginter, the return to his home of 12 years was a chance to find his knives.

Ginter was a meat cutter until his retirement and, although he knew the fire had gutted his double-wide, he hoped his set of expensive knives had survived.

He'd found part of his coin collection and his optimism was rising as he bent over in what had been the small kitchen.

"Look what it did to this," Ginter shouted to Mimi, his ex-wife who was helping him with the search. The blade had melted into a U shape. He couldn't find the boning knives, and his cleaver was a charred ruin.

"Now that upsets me," he said.

"Hey, there's the red colander," Mimi yelled to him. "If you can get it, we won't have to buy a new one."

The steel colander had survived the most destructive fire in California history — no way to explain that. Not far away stood the base of a 1950s-era barber chair that Ginter and Mimi had picked out. The seat itself had burned up.

"We like old things, and we like to buy the best," said Ginter, 75. "Unfortunately, we are certainly paying for that now."

Ginter is living with his daughter in Lancaster, a five-hour drive south. He is also insured, and in muddy jeans and gloves, he smiled at the debris in front of him.

"We'll recover, that's the thing," he said. "This is a small inconvenience or maybe a big inconvenience. But we'll recover."
 

Jerry Ginter holds up his wedding ring, found in the ruins of his home.
MASON TRINCA/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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