Every night at 6 PM the Sherriff of Butte County reveals the grim count of the dead discovered, so far, in the ashes of Paradise. He also reveals the latest number of known missing persons who cannot be located by family or friends. Finally, there is the list of homes and businesses destroyed. The raging fires that destroyed Paradise utterly have passed (for now) but the search for the dead is only beginning.
Last night’s official tally was:
DEAD: 71 (all but one found inside a home.)
HOMES DESTROYED: 9,740 (only about 5% have been search so far)
BUSINESSES DESTROYED: 336
In short, they have only begun the search for the dead. It will be some time before there is an OFFICIAL tally of the dead, but whatever that is it will always be on the low side. This is the kind of town and the kind of disaster that means five years from today hikers in the ruined but reviving forests will be stepping on skulls.
Paradise is not a town on some flat land out on the prairies or deep in the desert. Paradise is a series of cleared areas and roads superimposed on an extremely rugged terrain composed of deep, narrow ravines and high and densely wood ridges. The Skyway is fed by hundreds of paved and unpaved roads that twist and turn and rise and dip and then, at their OFFICIAL ends, run deeper still and far off the grid. If you live in Paradise you know there are hundreds of people living back up in those ravines and ridges that would be hard to find before the fire. In those places, the poor are lodged tighter than ticks.
I’ve seen, before the fire this time, people in the outback of Paradise so abidingly poor they were living in trailers from the 70s resting on cinder blocks and at most only two winters away from a pile of rust. These people would have had no warning of a fire, no warning at all. Instead of “sheltering in place” they would have been “incinerated in place.”
In the ravines and forests of Paradise, cell reception was so spotty that AT&T gave me my own personal internet driven cell-phone tower. If those off the grid in Paradise actually owned cell phones they would have been lucky to get an alert. But most of those did not own cell phones, and landlines didn’t run that deep in the woods. When the fire closed over them they would have had no warning. No warning until the trailer melted around them. And then there was, out behind but still close to their trailer, their large propane tank.
How many bodies will be found in the pyre of Paradise? Right now nobody knows for sure. Nobody will ever know for sure. In five years from today, somewhere in the reviving forest of Paradise, some hiker is going to step on a skull. He won’t be the only one.