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After The Camp Fire, Residents Returning To Paradise Find Rubble


Some residents of Paradise, Calif., have been allowed to return home. Their town was destroyed in the deadly Camp Fire. The fire forced one couple to actually separate as they fled. Now that they've been reunited, they've returned to Paradise to see what's left of their home. Here's Michelle Wiley from member station KQED.

MICHELLE WILEY, BYLINE: On the day the Camp Fire started, Janet and Don Clark knew they needed to get out. So they loaded up their stuff, got into separate cars and left. But on his way out, Don decided to turn back. He ignored the evacuation order, knowing that if he stayed, he wasn't going to be allowed to leave the confines of his neighborhood, which was still burning.

DON CLARK: I was not allowed to leave the property, even though I did sneak out. But if I was caught off the property, they could force me to go to Chico. That's - stay in place, kind of - that's the rules. You can stay here as long as you don't leave. Once you leave, you're not allowed to come back.

WILEY: Leaving would have meant driving into the unknown. His house was gone. And still he stayed in Paradise, spending his time putting out spot fires around his neighborhood. Some of his neighbors even credit him with saving their homes.

D. CLARK: I think I served a purpose being here because the firemen, they had to drive up and down the road. They didn't have time to go down these little roads and put out, like, little fires that were still burning.

WILEY: Even after the fires went out, Don stayed. Workers from Cal Fire brought him food, water and a cord to hook up to his generator so he could play his electric guitar. It gave him time to come to terms with his loss.

D. CLARK: So this is my situation. I could hate it - which I do - and I could be very mad. And I could get all uptight inside, or I could just let it go. And I had two weeks to do that.

WILEY: But for his wife, Janet, who stayed out of the fire zone, her experience was much different. She's been sleeping off and on in her car outside the Walmart parking lot, which became a refuge for many. Now she's returned to their home for the first time since she left.

JANET CLARK: I can't even recognize my own house. I can't even recognize my own house.

WILEY: On their lot was their home, a trailer and several cars - now reduced to rubble. The remains of holiday decorations show how much Janet and Don loved the season. Every year they'd cover their yard with lights and reindeer. When the fire started, the trimmings had been hanging.

J. CLARK: We always had candy canes. And we had hot chocolate. See, there was a few Christmas trees that were still up.

WILEY: It's unclear what's next for the Clarks. The lot they live on is paid for, but they didn't have any insurance. And Janet doesn't have a job.

J. CLARK: We can't afford to really move somewhere else. We have - you know, the land's paid for. We got to figure out - and we're old. You know, and that's a lot of people. A lot of people are elderly. How do you start over? And how long do you wait before you start over?

WILEY: Both are in their 60s and will rely on FEMA funds for now. Sifting through the debris, she did find one item that made her smile - her San Francisco Giants mug.

J. CLARK: Yes. Don, I got a Giants cup.

WILEY: For NPR News, I'm Michelle Wiley, in Paradise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Wiley