Paradise: The Survivors by Neva Legallet

Fleeing on the day of the fire, residents of Paradise drove through a town full of decimated landmarks. For 23-year-old Dakota Kurtz, it took two hours to leave the apartment complex he shared with his fiancée, Hailey Bunce, and their three-year-old son. Even as the couple was packing to evacuate, Kurtz was convinced that they would be returning.

“The whole time we’re packing, we were like, ‘We’ll need this and this,’ but we were always thinking we’d come back. No one really thought it would be that bad, but it was,” Kurtz said.

Remnants of Paradise residences remain, burnt and damaged by the fire. Photos by Neva Legallet.

Notified of the fire’s progression by multiple family members, Kurtz initially wasn’t worried as he was unaware of the fire’s magnitude and rapid approach.

“I was still in bed, mostly asleep, so I was like, ‘Fire, Concow, it’s not Paradise, we’re fine,’” Kurtz said.

As they fed their son and packed, conditions outside were worsening as the flames dug deeper into Paradise.

“Within an hour of first looking outside, the sun was completely gone and the sky was black. No sunlight, period,” Kurtz said. “It looked like it was already six or seven o’clock in the afternoon, and the smoke was getting really thick. The wind was insane too; everything was blowing all over the place.”

Displaced residents take refuge in the parking lot of a Walmart in Chico, Calif., living out of tents and cars. Photos by Lily Baldwin.

A harrowing journey down Skyway, the highway leading out of Paradise, brought Kurtz even closer to the fire.

“I look up in the sky and there’s a huge plume of smoke blowing right overhead,” Kurtz said. “I remember thinking it was odd because that only happens when there’s a fire right here, and sure enough I drove up about another 50 feet and on the side of the road were flames taller than I’ve ever seen. There were explosions going off; I could feel the heat through my car. I could feel the heat on my hands and on my face.”

According to Kurtz, fires in the area before, most recently the Humboldt Fire Complex of 2015, have made residents wary and yet are becoming more commonplace.

“It happens so fast. I’ve talked to a lot of people from Paradise, and we’ve dealt with this before. Fire is not a new thing, especially in Northern California. No one is surprised to see another fire pop up because they’re a common thing now,” Kurtz said.

Longtime resident of Paradise Dorothy Deffner also narrowly escaped the flames engulfing the town. Deffner left her retirement home with another resident, taking only her medication and cell phone.

"She urged me to get right in, so I put my walker in and we started out. We started down the road, with flames on both sides. It was really a hairy ride, but we made it all the way down to Chico," Deffner said.

Evacuees from the fire created temporary shelters, tents in downtown Chico, and await news of their homes. Photos by Neva Legallet.

It took Deffner and her companion hours to make it out of Paradise, even though the road out was cleared for evacuations.

"We were just trying to beat the flames; my friend and I prayed our way down that road," Deffner said.

The residents of Deffner's retirement facility are scattered over the area, with some being relocated to nearby homes and others staying with friends or family. Although they've been dispersed, Deffner is hopeful that connections can be rebuilt.

"It’s a day-by-day thing and we just hope we can get back together," Deffner said.

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