As the death toll rises to 56, hope fades for those missing in Paradise fire

CHICO, Calif. — John Digby was on the phone with his son when there was a knock at his door in Paradise. The 78-year-old was in bed sick, unaware of the raging inferno outside, so he didn’t get up to answer it.

Hours later, Roman Digby called again to see if his father’s health had improved. Static met him on the other end. He tried the police, to no avail.

The younger Digby then searched “Paradise” on Google and learned that a wildfire had taken the town. He realized the knock on his father’s door must have been a neighbor urging him to evacuate.

His worst fear was confirmed Wednesday when he got a call from the coroner: His father — like 55 others — had perished in the blaze, which started a week ago. The Camp fire death toll increased when search crews recovered eight more bodies in Paradise.

“He was loved and he’ll be missed,” Digby said of his father. “He was a very kindhearted man.”

Others who fear their loved ones dead, authorities said, may never know for sure. About 130 people remain unaccounted for. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said family members interested in offering a DNA sample could do so — it could help investigators identify the remains.

More than 460 people, along with 22 cadaver dogs, are involved in recovery efforts.

Since they began collecting names of those missing, investigators have found more than 200 people safe.

“I think that’s a pretty positive number,” Honea said.

As of Wednesday evening, the deadliest wildfire in state history has destroyed more than 10,300 structures and scorched 138,000 acres in Butte County. It was 35 percent contained, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials.

As crews strengthened containment lines around the fire’s footprint, public health officials were dealing with another problem at an evacuation shelter in Chico, a city near Paradise.

A norovirus outbreak was confirmed at Neighborhood Church, where about 200 evacuees are staying, said Lisa Almaguer, a spokeswoman for the Butte County Department of Public Health. She did not know how many people were ill but said that the sick have been separated from the healthy.

Such outbreaks are “not uncommon” in relatively small spaces where lots of people are living, she said. Shelter staff members are working to clean handles, counter tops and anywhere else the virus might be.

Elsewhere, some residents built their own makeshift resource center for those displaced. In the Walmart parking lot in Chico, people brought a variety of food items, including enchiladas and pastries. A man made patties out of a large tray of ground beef. Another served homemade minestrone.

There was an area for pets, with dog beds and pet food piled high.

Maggie Missere, 61, and her partner, Michael Crowder, 64, spent five days sleeping in their truck in the Burger King parking lot with their dog, Coco.

Missere has heart problems and had difficulty living out of the truck. So earlier this week, they headed to Walmart for a tent and met a pastor who set them up with donated supplies.

On Wednesday afternoon, the couple sat outside their red tent, clutching mugs of coffee while Coco slept on a new bed beside them. By the afternoon the camp had swelled with more than 100 people. Many had pets with them.

“You can’t go hungry here,” Missere said.

The couple’s home in Magalia is still standing, but they haven’t been allowed back.

“I feel relieved that we have a home,” Crowder said. Many of their friends weren’t so lucky.

Crowder has been overwhelmed by the support at the camp. The couple spent most of what little money they had on hand before the fire on fast food when they were sleeping in their vehicle. On Wednesday, a man walked up and gave Crowder $60 in cash, bringing him to tears.

Soon after, two middle-school-aged girls walked up to the couple, one with a tray of patties and the other with the fixings including mustard and pickles.

“See? They just come to you,” Missere said. “It’s like being at a restaurant.”

Tribune News Service
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