PARADISE, Calif. — As his neighbors fled, Kevin Jeys read. Then, as a mammoth wildfire moved in, he took a break from flipping through a New Yorker magazine and stepped outside to see what was happening.
“Propane tanks were exploding all over the place, people were screaming and the embers from the buildings on fire around me were crackling,” said Jeys, 62, a paralegal who writes briefs for criminal defense lawyers. “But I knew then and there I wasn’t going anywhere. I thought, where the hell am I going to go with three cats?”
So, Jeys — who does not own a cellphone or functioning vehicle but does, in addition to the three cats, have a cockatoo, a zebra finch, two tree frogs, and a red translucent bearded dragon lizard — stayed put. Somehow the home he rents on Birch Street emerged unscathed from a firestorm that turned most of Paradise into charred ruins and killed dozens of residents.
Just about the entire town of 27,000 people has evacuated to safe zones. But not Jeys, who was outside his home Tuesday. He still isn’t going anywhere, he said.
Jeys’ decision to stay in a home that somehow survived the Camp Fire offers a glimpse into the unpredictable behavior of both wildfires and those trapped in them.
Officials made it clear from the start of the fire that Paradise had to be evacuated.
Saying he was concerned about continuing hazards in the devastated areas, Sheriff Kory L. Honea of Butte County repeatedly warned residents that they were not allowed in the evacuation zones without a police escort. He also said he wanted to protect the evacuated homes and businesses from looters.
“I have warned people time and time again,” the sheriff said last week. “If you’re in these evacuated areas where you shouldn’t be, and you are violating the law or taking advantage of these poor citizens who were displaced, we are going to stop you and investigate you and take you to jail if we find that you are violating the law.”
Up and down suburban lanes, in one cul-de-sac after another in Paradise, some of the only structures that remain standing are the brick fireplaces of homes otherwise gutted by the firestorm. What remains of families’ personal effects are laid bare. There are also a number of homes and businesses intact, vacant of their owners and an inviting target for thieves.
Nearly every natural disaster includes people like Jeys. Some refuse to leave during Category 5 hurricanes, arguing they are safer in their homes than in panic-ridden traffic jams. Others express fear of looting if they leave.
Jeys acknowledged that the fact that his home was made largely of cinder block instead of wood or drywall may have made the structure more fire resistant. Still, he pointed at the dry pine needles in his yard and wondered why they didn’t burn.
A fire crew in Paradise also lent a hand, extinguishing a blaze that was ripping through an alleyway behind his dwelling. From his front porch, Jeys said he could still see nearby structures going up in flames.
“I woke up the next day and Paradise looked a little like Dresden,” said Jeys.
Surviving was one challenge for Jeys; enduring its aftermath is another. Power and telephone services went off after the fire, on Nov. 8.
Since the fire hit, Jeys said he found himself grappling with feelings of guilt and bewilderment.
“I know people who escaped with only the clothes on their backs,” he said. “Others didn’t make it out at all, and here I am.”