PARADISE, Calif. ― The residents of Ridgewood Mobile Home Park had decorated the front of their homes with ceramic frogs, small statues of angels and potted plants lining winding red-brick walkways. They were churchgoing people, all over the age of 55. Like many other Paradise residents, they chose the town for its scenic beauty and affordable cost of living.
Three weeks after the Camp fire scorched more than 150,000 acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and burned Paradise to the ground, all that’s left of the 97 structures in the close-knit retirement community of Ridgewood are the frames of its homes, the cinder blocks that held them and the homey accessories outside the doorsteps.
It’s hard to determine conclusively what has happened to each of the residents. The property owner, Glenn Fuller, and two on-site managers are still actively trying to account for them all ― about 150 people in total, according to the former on-site manager Cathy King. Butte County officials were unable to confirm how many have been found and how many haven’t. The official list of missing people is still in flux. And because of their age, many of the community’s residents don’t have cellphones or communicate over email or social media, adding to the difficulty in tracking them down.
Paradise wasn’t a rich place ― the town had a large homeless population, many residents struggled with addiction and job insecurity, and Ridgewood was one of several mobile home parks ― but it was a vibrant retirement town where lower-income retirees could comfortably make a home for themselves.
Ridgewood was situated at the east edge of Paradise, on Pentz Road, with striking views of forest pines and the West Branch Feather River. At the back of the property, toward the river, there was a lot where residents could park their RVs.
Many of the families and individuals who lived at Ridgewood had lived there for decades, Fuller, who has owned the property since 1996, told HuffPost. He described the community as “tight-knit.” There wasn’t much space between homes; residents knew their neighbors well. All 97 mobiles were situated on two long roads, the “upper road” and “lower road.”
“You get to know your neighbors when you’re that close,” King, who managed the property with her husband from 2014 until last June, and who lived on the property for several years as well, told HuffPost. King recalled the many times residents called her in as an extra for a game of pinochle or bunco, how those who still drove helped run errands for those who didn’t.
“They knew each other. They cared for each other.”
Many of them were on a fixed income and were immobile, dependent on oxygen tanks and the kindness of their neighbors.
On Nov. 8, the day of the fire, as the flames barreled west down the foothills, Ridgewood residents were some of the first to see it coming toward the town ― and they didn’t have much time to evacuate.
The two on-site property managers went door-to-door around 8 a.m., alerting residents on their own, Fuller said. Some were still asleep. Some were having breakfast, completely unaware of what was coming toward them. As was common for the community, those with the ability to drive helped those who couldn’t.
“By the time [residents] got to Pentz Road, the trees were on fire at the other end of the park, and burning leaves were coming down around them,” Fuller told HuffPost. “People were just fleeing at that point with the clothes on their back, and some of them hadn’t even dressed yet.”
One resident, Jim, picked up the wife of another neighbor knowing that her husband was out and she couldn’t drive. Two other residents, Ruth and Linda, didn’t evacuate until they’d picked up their neighbor Billie. Many of the park’s residents made sure to check on their neighbors, according to Fuller, and helped one another escape the fast-moving flames.
But not all residents made it out. The remains of Teresa Ammons, who was 82 and had lived in the park for years, were found just 2 feet outside of her mobile home.
Ammons generally kept to herself, King told HuffPost. King used to drive her to get groceries, and they would sometimes share a glass of wine together. Over time, they became friends.
“I think she died trying to get out.”
Fuller and King, as well as the two current property managers, are now working to compile a definitive list of what happened to the community. They are calling relatives and shelters, watching Butte County Sheriff’s Office press conferences and updating one another when they’ve heard from someone.
Most of the residents they’ve heard from were able to evacuate to homes of family or friends, rather than the shelters in Chico, Orland, Oroville and Gridley.
As Fuller continues to try to account for each resident, first responders and law enforcement have identified some of them as deceased.
Now, those who are in shelters are facing the difficult prospect of rebuilding from the ashes.
In churches in neighboring towns of Chico, Orland, and Oroville, evacuees were crammed onto cots alongside hundreds of other displaced people last Friday. Some shelters faced an outbreak of norovirus. The situation was similarly bleak at a Walmart parking lot where hundreds had set up with tents and RVs despite the rain and cold, hoping that the open air would prevent them from catching the norovirus that plagued indoor shelters.
Volunteers from churches, organizations, hospitals and neighboring towns were doing what they could, including laundry, cooking, checking up on mental and physical health, bleaching floors, cleaning portable bathrooms and helping evacuees recover lost paperwork. Their generosity was remarkable, and warmly welcomed by evacuees, but it’s an unsustainable response to a catastrophe.
“This is very sad to see,” President Donald Trump said a week ago while visiting Paradise, which he repeatedly called “Pleasure.”
“I think hopefully this will be the last of these,” he continued. “This was a really, really bad one.” When asked if the ruins of the town altered his views on climate change, he responded curtly: “No, no.”
That same day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had set up shop at the Chico Mall. The line for assistance wrapped around the building. There were rumors that Trump would visit the FEMA center; people in line shuffled their feet and looked around anxiously at any sound of a siren or helicopter, eager to see if the president would make an appearance.