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Commentary: Paradise lost - California fire devastation comes into focus with individual stories of life and loss

People watch as the Woolsey fire burns houses and the hillside in West Hills. Photo for The Washington Post by Kyle Grillot1 / 4
Rubble is all that remains of Jack and Rhonda Wright's home in Paradise, Calif., in the aftermath of the wildfire that devastated the picturesque city. Submitted photo2 / 4
The Woolsey Fire burns above Malibu, Calif., on Nov. 10. Photo for The Washington Post by Kyle Grillot3 / 4
Sarah Nelson Katzenberger4 / 4

The first 25-ish years of my life were spent in and around the Sacramento Valley in California.

I spent my summer vacations bouncing between the oceans and mountains, cranking my neck at the endless heights of redwood forests and floating in the clear waters of Lakes Tahoe. I devoted no time at all to thinking about how rare constant blue skies and sunshine are to the rest of the world.

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More than statistics, Lakes area residents have personal connections to Paradise

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In 2009, I packed up my little Volkswagen and left California in my rear-view mirror to make a new life in Minnesota. But no matter how far removed, California is still home. My family is there. Many of my friends are there. An overwhelming number of my memories are there.

So when the news broke last week that California was burning I watched cautiously and helplessly from 1,500 miles away.

Wildfires in California are nothing new. In the fall, Californians throughout the state know the foothills will probably burn off and on for a few weeks. The combination of long hot summers and dry, rainless falls leave lots of room for fire risk.

There have been major fires over the years. In 2007, the Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe burned 3,100 acres of pristine mountain forest, devastating a huge area south of the lake. It took seven days for the fire to be contained. A couple hundred structures were destroyed. There were three minor injuries, but no one died.

The smoke from the Angora fire was visible from Sacramento 70 miles away and it added to the poor summer air quality but within a few weeks it wasn't really even in the news any more. Driving into South Lake Tahoe, you could see the damage of the fire and, even a decade later, the evidence of the scorch is still visible.

This summer, the Carr Fire flashed through Shasta County burning more than 200,000 acres of forest and small mountain towns without any discrimination. Until Nov. 8, most Californians thought the Carr Fire was as bad as it could get.

This fire in Paradise—88 miles north of Sacramento—is like nothing anyone has ever seen in California. The numbers are staggering. Nine out 10 houses gone. Just burned to the ground. A staggering 6,700 structures—including the entire business district—destroyed. Most tragically dozens of people have lost their lives. Dozens.

My childhood best friend Jodi Cress has lived in Paradise for about as long as I have lived in Minnesota. Her parents moved there 12 years ago to pastor a church in the area. When I texted her the day the fire broke out to make sure they were OK, they were still in shock.

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"There was no time. We just had to get out." -  Jodi Cress, Paradise, CA resident.

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"There was no time," Jodi told me. "We just had to get out."

As Jodi replayed their evacuation over the phone days later, tears ran down my face as I grasped how incredibly fragile life is and how close my dear, lifelong friends were to being among those who lost their lives to this massive fire.

"I was getting ready to leave for work and noticed ash was falling from the sky. In a matter of minutes, the sky was black—like night," Jodi recalled. "That's when we got the call." A reverse 911 call was made to area residents to tell them to leave the area immediate. Jodi woke up her husband, Casey, and they left with their dog named June, their wedding album and Casey's favorite guitar.

Jodi said she called her mom, Rhonda Wright, to make sure she had gotten to evacuation orders. She hadn't.

"I told her she had to leave right away," Jodi said. "By the time they were getting in their car, they could see the flames behind their house."

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"I told her (Jodi's mother) she had to leave right away. By the time they were getting in their car, they could see the flames behind their house." -  Jodi Cress, Paradise, CA resident.

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Jodi, Casey and Rhonda met at her parents' church and headed for Chico, 10 miles away. Jodi's dad, Jack, raced to his beloved horse Tonka to set him loose to outrun the flames on his own. "He wrote his phone number on the horse's hind(quarters) and hoped he would make it far enough away," she said.

After two days of total uncertainty, Jodi and Casey learned from a friend that their house is still standing. They haven't been back and. as of now, don't expect to for weeks, maybe months. Casey works on the road, but Jodi's job status at Feather River Hospital is in question with the hospital damaged from the blaze and the area it serves largely destroyed.

Jodi's parents, Jack and Rhonda, were not so fortunate. On Saturday morning, I got a text message from Jodi that just read, "Mom and Dad's house is gone."

Jack and Rhonda lost their home, their storage unit, their church—all burned to the ground.

"They lost everything," Jodi said. "Except dad's horse. Somehow he made it."

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"They (Jodi's parents) lost everything. Except dad's horse. Somehow he made it." -  Jodi Cress, Paradise, CA resident.

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Like many people in Paradise, Jack and Rhonda had a hard time securing fire insurance for their home. They rented their home and insurance companies denied them coverage because of the fire risk.

Once the smoke clears, they will face the daunting task of completely starting over. Despite their crippling loss, Jack and Rhonda and Jodi and Casey are grateful to have escaped with their lives and to have managed to stay together.

So far 63 people have been found succumbed to the fire in Paradise. Many were in their cars attempting to escape. A partial list of more than 600 missing persons was released with names and ages of those still unaccounted for. Many of them are senior adults who no doubt set out to live their remaining days amidst the great red-wooded Paradise.

Jodi and her family are currently waiting out the evacuation with family in Sacramento. The city is shaded in an eerie cloud of smoke and ash. The air so thick, area schools have canceled classes until further notice—all evidence of the fire that reduced the homes and businesses of Paradise and its surrounding communities to piles of rubble.

"That's the hardest part," Jodi said. "Knowing that when this is all over, we might not have a home to go back to."

And the fire still burns.

California will recover, but there's a good chance it will never be the same. Certainly the lives of those who have outrun this fire never will be. It's easy to watch on as California burns far away from our snow-covered northern paradise and speculate who or what is to blame, or to feel overwhelmed at the sheer numbers without giving thought to the personal stories of those left to sift through the ashes of the Camp Fire.

Among the 52,000 people currently displaced are Jack and Rhonda. Jodi and Casey. Each day that passes, they think of something else lost. Wedding dresses. Family photos. Rhonda's dad's Purple Heart.

Remember those names as the news continues to shape up the lasting damage that will forever change the landscape of Paradise.