Paradise Lost: Heartache After California's Deadliest Wildfire Wipes Out Close-Knit Mountain Town

A mother searching for her son, a husband who lost his wife to a stroke two months ago, two roommates just trying to survive — all victims of California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, all living in their cars in the Chico Neighborhood Church parking lot because they want to be near the only thing they have left — their dogs.

None of them know what’s going to happen next.

Jean Eisenbarth escaped with Sweeney, her 8-year-old Great Pyrenees and her turtle, Kelly Winslow and Tim Joyner evacuated with their dogs Hazel, Moose, March, Delbert, and their two rats, Jay Raynor drove off with his yellow lab Gus, leaving behind homes in Paradise and the neighboring city of Magalia as a wildfire tore them apart, turning everything into ash within hours.

This is their story.

Gary Brand, Jean Eisenbarth, Jay Raynor, Kelly Winslow and Tim Joyner — they're evacuees, survivors and residents of Paradise. We came across them in the parking lot of The Neighborhood Church and a makeshift donation center in Chico, California where they are now living. They lost everything in the Camp Fire — California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire — but they won't give up hope. Video: Jennifer Gonzalez, Riya Bhattacharjee


I Feel Like I’ve Been in a War

Jean Eisenbarth, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 12:55 p.m., Chico Neighborhood Church parking lot

How did you escape the night of the wildfires?

“My name is Jean Eisenbarth and this is my dog Sweeney — so if anybody sees us we’re okay. We’re from Shadowbrook Apartments in Paradise behind the DMV off of Clark. From what I hear, a lot of the apartments burned, some still are standing. There was a lot of explosions going on — it was like a battlefield, but we made it down here and there’s been a lot of donations and a lot of help. People are very kind but it was very scary. I didn’t think I was gonna make it out. I was one of the last ones in my family to make it out and I feel like I’ve been through a war. Everybody else here has gone through the same thing so I feel like I’m in the right place and hoping that we can go up and see our place sometime soon to see what we can salvage, and it’s just awful.”

Who helped you get out of Paradise?

"It was an old man and he was just walking in the neighborhood and I opened the door and I go, 'how do you get out of here,' and he goes, “It looks like everybody’s lost.” And I said, “We are,” and he didn’t even ask me to get in the car. He said, “Go to the stop sign, make a left and you’ll hit Skyway.” But he didn’t panic or nothing. I don’t know if I would have made it out if he wouldn’t have told me how to get out of there. I don’t know who he was and he didn’t seem scared, I think he was an angel, I honestly do."[[500740772, R]]

Did you get any warning from anybody, or the city or anything like that?

"They were coming to warn us, but not beforehand. I didn’t get any warning through phone or anything."

"When I woke up in the morning the sky was orange and I told my friend that was staying with me, 'Pete, I think there’s a fire,' and he goes 'No, I think it was just a weird overcast.' And then we started hearing the explosions and then it got to midnight, totally dark. I had one candle and the reason I stayed so long was I was trying to catch my cats, they were scared. So I saw the police go into the other apartment complex so I ran out there and the cop car came up and I asked do we need to leave and he says, 'Oh my God, yes.'" [[500648812, C]]


We’ll starve, the Dogs Won’t

Kelly Winslow, Tim Joyner, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 1:30 p.m., Chico Neighborhood Church parking lot

Where are you guys from?

TJ: "We’re from Magalia, and upper Magalia — right now we’re kind of in a flux because the fires are getting to that point so we’re kind of waiting for news you know day by day."

Are you staying here are all night?

TJ: "Yeah we have been safe here. I’m finding that people are putting aside their differences and just coming together, I think that’s what is happening. It’s incredible. Everyone’s in the same boat."

But you don’t know if the fires reached your house or what’s going on?

TJ: "We’re getting the same information everyone is online. I just found out by accident on Google. But we don’t really know … We’re just two roommates trying to survive."

Who are your other roommates?

TJ: "This is Hazel, this is Moose, March is on the floor, and Delbert, and two rats. I got them covered very well so they’re warm."

What are they eating?

TJ: "We have dog food, the dogs are eating well. We’ll starve, the dogs won’t. We’re realizing that this is going to be a long ordeal."

So what’s next?

"If you don’t own your home and are renting like we are, you’ll really have no other recourse than to go after the company. That company no longer has a home itself. So now you have to go try to find them. Actually we got a letter from our realtor and she said that it’s gonna be a while so …"

It’s gonna be a while before the electricity goes back up there. So even when we do go up there we’re gonna have to have everything in place cause we’re gonna have to have food, gas, water. It’s like camping in your own home. We’re gonna get a little propane thing, we’re already thinking ahead."


Mother’s Intuition

We came across a Paradise evacuee in the parking lot of The Neighborhood Community Church who didn’t want to go on camera or be identified. She was emotional as she told us she was searching for her son. “Nobody’s seen him since two days before the fire, he was in a homeless camp in the woods. It’s devastating to see — If it hadn’t been for our neighbor who begged my husband and I to leave, we wouldn’t have left. So bless Virginia for saving us. We didn’t take anything — our computer or our meds. But it’s just things. At least we got out alive.”

Before we left she added:

“Just pray that they find my son, I'm hoping that he’s not dead, when you are a mother you have that mother’s intuition, and I can’t feel him,” she said. “The miracle out of this is that we have come together as one.”

The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in recorded California history has been burning for about one week – this is what’s left of the town of Paradise.


Everything’s gone but I got my car ... and my dog

Jennifer Gonzalez / NBC Bay Area
The deadly Camp Fire that ravaged through the small town of Paradise, California left hundreds of people without a home like Jay Raynor and his dog who is now living out of his car. (November 13, 2018)

Jim Raynow, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 1:45 p.m., Chico Neighborhood Church parking lot

JR: "What do you wanna know?"

Just your story, how you got here, how things are going.

JR: "Long story."

Are you from Paradise?

JR: "No I’m from Magalia. I lost my wife two months ago to a stroke and two months later I lose my house so I’m here."

When did you get here?

JR: "Thursday."

And you know for sure that your house is gone?

JR: "Well yeah my neighbor, it was kind of weird, he found me here about an hour ago and how he found me was that he was watching the news and saw me behind a reporter. I haven’t seen him since last Thursday but he tracked me down. He had a friend of his take a picture of his house from the street and it’s burned to the ground. I’m right next to it and at the edge you can see that my house is gone. Everything’s gone but I got my car."

Is that your dog? What’s his name?

JR: "Gus! It’s our dog, my wife’s baby. He’s 14 years old and he lost his mommy so we’re living in our car — it sucks. He’s got the backseat and I got the front. It’s funny I know everybody says that, it is what it is."

Do they have shelters inside?

JR: "They’re full. I got here Thursday and they were full. But I can’t have a dog. They do a good job, I got brand new clothes from these people it was amazing. Showers."

How long have you lived in Magalia?

JR: "Twenty-five years, I like it. I’m like in limbo. It’s like gravity and space, I’m in between."[[500649981, C]]


We Lost Everything

Gary Brand, Nov. 13, 3.32 p.m., Chico Neighborhood Church parking lot

Where did you live in Paradise?

"34 Wayland Road, Space #12. Lived there for 47 years."

Can you tell us how you escaped?

“We just got out of there the best way we could. We lost everything. I’m coping the best I can but my wife ain’t. She lost her Chihuahua. He got so scared he went under the couch and would not come out and the officers told us we had to leave, now, so we left.”[[500647531, C]]


Burned out of Paradise

Chris Hughes, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 3:59 p.m., Burrito Bandito, Chico

What Happened?

"Burned out of Paradise, born and raised there — Feather River Hospital — went to high school there, and drove around those streets, and it’s all gone. I really don’t know what to think about it. Just taking it a day at a time. Three dogs crammed into a car, trying to make life work."

How are they doing?

"They’re coping, but they’re all a little stressed out. It’s a crazy situation right now. Everybody’s a little dazed. But yeah, trying to stay focused."


Waiting For FEMA

Terry Black, Nov. 13, 6 p.m., Wal-Mart Parking Lot, Chico

How long have you been here?

“We’ve been here about four days, I can’t remember anymore. It was like a movie at first, like you see people panicking on TV all over town, that’s how it was. The sky was red, and then I heard a boom!"

How long do you think you’ll be here for?

"We don’t know yet, we are waiting for FEMA."[[500648202, C]]


Paradise Destroyed: Camp Fire Leaves Small California Town in Ashes

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