Paradise Lost: California fire hits former Wadena residents

Jim Stoneman witnessed the devastation of a fire on his Wadena business this year, a fire that slowed things down, but didn't stop him from doing business and living life. His children recently escaped the flames of the wildfire that left nearly ...

What's left of Josh Stoneman's 1950 Ford with his neighbor's house in the background. The entire landscape is shades of grey, black and brown after the Nov. 8 fire that burned their town of Paradise, Calif. Submitted photo

Jim Stoneman witnessed the devastation of a fire on his Wadena business this year, a fire that slowed things down, but didn't stop him from doing business and living life. His children recently escaped the flames of the wildfire that left nearly nothing of the town of Paradise, Calif. Some residents were allowed to begin returning to their homes Wednesday, Dec. 5, almost a month after they left in a rush from the burning city.

Stoneman's son Josh, and daughter Delayne Stoneman, both lived and worked in Paradise for most of their lives, leaving Wadena when they were ages 5 and 3, according to Jim.

Josh described Paradise as a foothills region between mountains and valley. Jim said it was a populated area, but the forest was so thick that you didn't realize there was so many people living there amongst the scrub oaks and pine trees outside of Chico.

The fire, known as the Camp Fire, turned the town of about 27,000 people to ashes in just seven hours. Authorities said 85 people were killed in the fire. Based on photos that were shared with Josh by firefighters, there is nothing left but the foundation of his home.

"I own a nice foundation, some nice dirt," Josh said of what little remains.


His family barely escaped the raging fire as he said there was not notice or warning to evacuate until a police officer from three towns over stopped at the house and told him that he and his family needed to leave immediately. He grabbed the three family dogs, cat, parrot, and he and his two daughters, jumped in the car and left town. His wife was still at work at a nearby hospital.

With no home, job or infrastructure to return to, Josh said he got another job in Sacramento, about 2.5 hours from Paradise. His family is staying with relatives for the time. He mentioned they put an offer in on a house in Placerville, Calif. They have no plans at this point to return to Paradise. He's heard from others who are considering going back, to live in fifth-wheel trailers on their property. Josh said, at this point, there was no reason to return to life in Paradise. Anything that could be remaining, is now being soaked into the ashes as the region enters a rainy season.

He had homeowners insurance and has not heard of any other kind of aid coming to his family.

"We're just putting one foot in front of the other," Josh said of each day.

Josh's sister DeLayne and her fiancé Eric are also processing the loss of everything after seeing photos of their long driveway leading to their home. While it looks like little survived, they do plan to return and be a part of rebuilding Paradise.

DeLayne recalls seeing the fire and smoke. She awoke Nov. 8 to what sounded like hail as embers were falling from the sky. She and Eric worked to wet things down before loading up their three dogs and two cats and setting out on the most horrific drive of their lives.

"Fire was everywhere," DeLayne Stoneman recalled last week. "Cars were on fire, homes, businesses, everything we have ever known was burning down around us. We had to drive into the fire to escape. People were being pulled from their cars and told to run. I saw a mother holding her baby run directly into the flames, it was the only way out. After two hours we made it 13 miles to a neighboring town to try to find our loved ones. By the grace of God we all are safe, our entire town was not as lucky. Everything is gone, our jobs, our homes, many many lives, everything."

DeLayne said she's been blessed in the weeks following the fire. They've received kindness and donations from all over. Even an old acquaintance was able to round up a camper for the couple to live out of until they find other living arrangements. They have not been able to return to their home.


"The officials still have not lifted the evacuation order for our zone," Delayne said. "They are not even giving us a timeline as to when they might. We have only seen a picture of our property from the end of our long driveway and all I can say is it does not look promising. However, that is our home, our world, and we will rebuild. Many, many people have chosen to move away, but not us. It is going to be a long, hard road but we are going to rebuild Paradise and it is going to be glorious."

She said she's appreciated the many people wanting to donate to them, however, as they are in a camper, they are tight on space so funds are most useful at this point. She said their home was underinsured.

In an effort to bring them some aid, the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Wadena has been taking up a collection for Stoneman's children. While Jim Stoneman is the pastor of the church, he said he was not involved in requesting the collection, but he appreciates all the people willing to give to the families in need.

If you are interested in helping the Stoneman families with their financial needs, you can donate to First Congregational UCC's special offering. Mail to: Attn: Fire Relief, 110 Colfax Ave. SW,

Wadena, MN 56482.

About the Camp Fire

On Nov. 8, the Camp Fire erupted in Butte County, with wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour feeding the fire that burned an abundance of dry fuel. Almost simultaneously, two separate fires erupted in Southern California called the Woolsey and Hill Fires. These three major wildfires forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the counties of Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles, according to the state of California.

The fire burned 153,336 acres, 13,972 residences, 528 commercial and 4,293 other buildings. It killed 85 people and left over 50,000 displaced.


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