“Honestly, it looks like Armageddon,” Rice said. “There’s a part of me that wonders if this city will come back. It is that devastating.”
Resident Mariah Bush, now with her sister in Chico, California, said she doesn’t know yet if her home is still standing. But she acknowledged that “the town is gone.”
“Yesterday I was a lot more hopeful about my house,” she said Friday, fighting back tears. “Today was a little less hopeful. I’m thinking about the things I wish I had thought to bring that I hadn’t thought to.”
Stephen Walsh, spokesman for the American Red Cross’ Gold Country regional offices, said two of four evacuation centers for Camp Fire survivors are full, with nearly 400 people using them.
At a Red Cross center in nearby Chico, evacuees wore surgical masks Friday to filter out smoke as they rummaged through secondhand clothing piled on folding tables outside.
Emerald Mayfied grabbed a pink girl’s jacket and held it high, victoriously.
“Place is burned down completely,” she said. “So we’re looking for baby clothes, teenager clothes, mom clothes.”
“I never made it back to the house,” she added. “But my kids got all the pets. And all the kids are safe. And the baby is good. So we’re doing good.”
The Red Cross coordinates the delivery of two meals a day, and evacuees are each given a brand new cot, Walsh said. But their long-term outlook is unclear.
Paradise is a working-class community filled with retirees. The median home value just above $200,000 is closer to Wisconsin’s $167,000 than to San Francisco’s $858,800, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Some sunk all they had into Paradise.
“I know a lot of people don’t know the status of their homes,” Walsh said. “It could be days or weeks.”
For now, evacuees like Fisher are happy to be alive. As she drove through flame-licked roads Thursday she devised a plan: Her and her boys would find water, soak their blankets and hunker down somewhere — anywhere.
“We were trapped,” she said. “We were surrounded.”
Power lines fell ahead and propane tanks exploded behind, she said. “Embers falling everywhere. People running everywhere.”
After a few hours dodging flames and traffic, Fisher found sheriff’s deputies who directed her to safety. Maybe it was just in time.
On Friday charred, abandoned vehicles lined the streets of Paradise. Some were pushed off the road by tractors to clear the way for first responders, said Rice of the California Fire Foundation.
Butte County Sheriff Kory L. Honea, describing the dead, told reporters Friday night that on Thursday “four individuals were found in their vehicles, and they were in the Paradise area.”
He described those bodies to NBC News as “a group in the same car.”
“It’s certainly possible that they were family members,” he said.
“We found another individual near those vehicles today,” he added. “That person was outside the vehicle.”
A total of 35 Paradise residents were still unaccounted for, the sheriff said, adding, “I would anticipate that would increase.”
Stephan Kozub contributed.