For nearly a month, Omar Franklin and his wife waited in agony to return home after the ferocious Camp Fire forced them out of Paradise.
“Over here is my pop-up trailer with my son’s little scooter that he used to have,” Franklin told CNN affiliate KTXL, fighting back tears as he pointed out a pile of rubble.
The couple was among hundreds of residents who were allowed inside Paradise for the first time since the Camp Fire broke out November 8, killing 85 people and virtually wiping out the entire town.
Evacuation orders were lifted on Wednesday for residents in some neighborhoods on the east side of Paradise as crews continue removing debris and damaged power and telecommunications equipment. Non-residents will be allowed in parts of the town on Thursday.
But the wait is not over for those who lived in the hardest-hit areas of Paradise.
Butte County officials said repopulating those areas is still dangerous and officials have to evaluate multiple aspects, including potential fire behavior, weather and other life safety hazards, before allowing the rest of the evacuees back.
Residents face emotional homecoming
Franklin and his wife recalled their home’s walls full of family photos and their son’s toys as they sifted through the rubble together.
“You just feel a void, like there’s just nothingness” Franklin’s wife, Janet told KTXL. “You have nothing but the clothes that you left with. That’s a very strange feeling.”
They are thankful they are unharmed and said they want to rebuild their home one day.
Jerry Foster, wearing a white hazmat suit and boots, stood in disbelief in front of what had been his home for decades.
“I know why my wife didn’t want to come,” Foster told CNN affiliate KHSL. “It’s overwhelming.”
His cars, garden tractors and kitchen appliances were burned. His coin collection was reduced to a few melted pieces.
“The fire was so hot everything just melted,” he said.
10 people still unaccounted for
The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, has left a long-lasting mark on Butte County.
Before it was contained on November 25, it scorched more than 153,000 acres in Butte County, decimated much of the town of Paradise and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes.
In the weeks before evacuees were allowed back in Paradise, crews had been searching for human remains in the ash, debris and dirt.
The inferno claimed the lives of 85 people. The sheriff’s office has identified or tentatively identified the majority of the victims.
The number of unaccounted for people soared, at one point, to a high of more than 1,000 people but has since dropped to 10, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.
Students return to school
Some signs of normalcy have returned to Paradise in the wake of the Camp Fire.
About 32,000 students in Butte County, including 4,832 displaced students, returned to school Monday in new surroundings.
The Camp Fire destroyed Ponderosa Elementary, along with most schools in the Paradise Unified School District. Of Paradise’s 12 school programs at nine locations, only Cedarwood Elementary was able to host students at its original location. The rest were relocated to Chico, Durham or Oroville.
“Paradise Unified is not buildings. Teachers, students and families — that’s what Paradise Unified is,” Superintendent Michelle John told reporters. “Our kids today are spread out throughout this whole county. … We have kids at the mall. I never thought I’d say that. We have kids at a church in Chico. We have kids at the fairgrounds.”
“We’re still one big family, but we’re spread out,” she said.
More than 1,200 backpacks filled with school supplies were distributed to Butte County students and the school district is also providing free meals to displaced students for the rest of the school year.
Kindra Britt, a Placer County Office of Education spokesperson who is serving as interim spokesperson for the Paradise district, said teachers have been trained on how to recognize trauma in students and in themselves.
“We’re calling it the ‘second first day of school,'” she said. “We might not be able to give them back their homes at this time, but we can give them back their schools.”