(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF MERCURY NEWS)
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MAGALIA — When the Camp Fire first tore through Butte County, John Pohmajevich stayed put in the small town of Magalia — a place he’s called home for several years now. He knew if he left, there would be no telling when he would be able to return.
On Thursday, the San Mateo native surveyed the devastating damage the fire’s left in its wake and recalled the last time he saw something like this: the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the Bay Area in 1989.
“I thought (Loma Prieta) was bad, with the freeways crumbling,” Pohmajevich said. “But it was still not as bad as this.”
The Camp Fire has now killed 63 people to date, matching the number of fatalities in the Bay Area temblor, with 631 more still considered missing — 501 more than the figure given a day earlier. Sheriff Kory Honea said the figure spiked because authorities were constantly vetting both previous and incoming reports.
“They continued to work into the night and then ultimately they updated it,” Honea said. “I am fine with them updating that because I would rather get that information out than to wait too long to do that.”
Among the latest death toll were the remains of three people in Paradise, three in Magalia, and one in Concow. Honea said investigators have tentatively identified 53 fire victims.
Also Thursday, Cal Fire officials announced a possible second origin of the fire in the Concow area. The first point of origin was in Pulga. The California Highway Patrol also has removed 165 vehicles from the fire zone.
This weekend, President Donald Trump will view the devastation firsthand when he visits victims of the deadly Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. To date, the blaze has destroyed 9,700 homes and 11,862 structures overall.
When the fire began burning through Butte County last week — 141,000 acres and counting, with 40 percent containment — residents of of the 11,000-population Magalia and 700-resident Concow, two small towns in the shadows of Paradise, were left scrambling to escape. Now, as they grapple with grief and loss, some are contemplating whether to pick up the pieces and rebuild, or whether to move on.
“I think a lot of people aren’t going to want to come back. If this town recovers … if .. it’s going to take years and years and years,” Pohmajevich said. “This community was broke before the fire.”
He noted that towns like Magalia and Concow rely on cities like Paradise and Chico as an economic lifeline, and now one of them has virtually been taken off the map.
“The business was in Paradise,” Pohmajevich said.
Many people came to these two communities because they liked the peace and tranquility it offered. People “want to live in these areas because they like it,” said Congressman Doug LaMalfa, a Republican who represents Butte County and has been coordinating relief efforts with the federal government.
“The people are very resilient up there,” LaMalfa said, but acknowledged that “putting everything back together again is going to be a fairly long-term process.”
LaMalfa understands that some residents, by necessity or choice, won’t rebuild in places like Magalia and Concow.
But for residents who do return, LaMalfa wants the rebuilding process to result in better infrastructure — sewer rather than septic systems, underground PG&E lines. He also wants to see trees removed from along roadways and around towns and cities so emergency crews have more “defensible space” to rely on when fires erupt.
“I think many will want to try again,” LaMalfa said, especially if the infrastructure is better. “The support that’s poured in from all over the state and all over the country is pretty amazing. People feel pretty good that a lot of folks are on their side.”
Jesus “Zeus” Fernandez, one of the first Camp Fire fatalities to be publicly identified, lived in Concow and valued the sense of community life in one of the state’s more rugged areas offered.
But the landscape made the prospect of escaping a deadly inferno like the Camp Fire difficult.
“When the fire started that morning, the residents of the Concow area were hit first and seemingly hardest,” reads a GoFundMe fundraising page created in his honor. “Before Paradise, and with the least amount of warning. Many of his neighbors recall having only about 10 minutes to evacuate before driving through walls of flames and flying embers. Worst thing about Concow, is there’s only one way in and one way out. No fire warning system, virtually nonexistent cell service, and brutal terrain.”
Pohmajevich said the allure of the outer regions of Butte County lie in their serenity. He moved to the area after a career as a boat mechanic to support his elderly parents who retired to Magalia after spending their lives in the Bay Area.
“People move up here for the peace. You don’t have a lot of people. You don’t have traffic,” he said. “And there’s very good people up here.”
Michael Earhart, 75, another longtime Magalia resident who steadfastly refused to leave his home — in part to avoid being separated from his beloved parakeet Max — isn’t going anywhere. He has kept on in part by visits from search-and-rescue and other emergency personnel dropping off water and food, though what he is currently fixated on is a propane refill.
“It’s a gorgeous place,” Earhart said. “I don’t know where else I can go.”
Staff writer Jason Green contributed to this report.
Seeking missing people from the Camp Fire
Anyone seeking information about people missing in the wake of the Camp Fire, or want to report someone missing or accounted for, can view the latest list from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office at buttecounty.net/sheriffcoroner and call one of the following three hotlines: 530-538-6570, 530-538-7544, 530-538-7671.