Families Desperately Searching For Their Loved Ones After The Camp Fire
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 600 people are missing in Northern California after the fast-moving Camp Fire decimated the mountain town of Paradise. For every person still unaccounted for, there are family members and friends desperately trying to find them. Reporter Stephanie O'Neill spent the day with one man as he searched for his missing wife - and a note to warn you that the details of this story may be upsetting.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Since the deadly wildfire barreled into his Butte County community, Jim Knaver, an elementary school teacher in his 60s, has barely slept or eaten - his days instead consumed by visits to evacuation centers and hospitals as he searches for his 67-year-old disabled wife.
JIM KNAVER: Her name is Anna Hastings. And she goes by Toni. And she's like five foot tall, blond hair, blue eyes, kind of small.
O'NEILL: Last Thursday started like any other beautiful fall day in the pine-filled town of Paradise, Calif. The only exception - a light bit of smoke Knaver noticed in the distance. So he and his wife prepped the way they always had during the past 19 years of living up here in wildfire country. He double-checked there was nothing flammable near the house while she monitored the local TV news. She saw no mention of fire, so Knaver headed to work.
KNAVER: I told her, I'm going to go down - halfway down the mountain. I promised her if I saw anything that made me feel a little bit uncomfortable or got a strange vibe, I was going to turn around halfway and come home and call in sick.
O'NEILL: But he didn't because down the road the smoke was thin. Within a couple hours however, everything changed. The winds picked up. The fire began to roar. Knaver left his classroom and raced back toward Paradise until he hit a California Highway Patrol roadblock.
KNAVER: And I told the CHP officer, my wife is disabled. She doesn't drive a car. She doesn't have a cell phone. And she's not going to leave without the dogs and cats. And I really need to get up there to get her. And he goes, turn that truck around. No one's getting up here.
O'NEILL: He phoned Toni and told her the road was closed. So they discussed her going across the street into a clearing in case the fire reached their house. Over the next few hours, they spoke several times. But the last time he called, the lines were dead. He hoped she'd escaped with a neighbor. And then he began searching for Toni at shelters and hospitals. No one had any information. After five days, he got behind fire lines and headed into Paradise.
KNAVER: That's smoldering right there.
O'NEILL: It's still smoldering.
KNAVER: That was the tow yard - all those cars towed. But there's some that didn't get burned.
O'NEILL: Some didn't get burned, wow.
KNAVER: Yeah, it's the same hit-or-miss. And I'm just praying that my wife and dogs and cats are in one of the untouched homes.
O'NEILL: As happens in wildfires, the devastation here is haphazard. The Big O tire shop stands. An antique store and restaurant are burned to the ground. Across the street, a convenience store is melted into an unrecognizable mass. As Knaver drives, he loses track of where he is because nothing looks like Paradise anymore.
KNAVER: This house is gone - not good.
O'NEILL: This is your neighbor?
KNAVER: This is - yeah. We'll be coming to my house in a couple of minutes. Their house is standing. That's incredible. Please God let Toni be - and the animals be in the house.
O'NEILL: And then Knaver turns the final corner.
KNAVER: That's my driveway. Oh, my house is gone. Oh, my God. My whole house is gone. Oh, no, I don't think my wife made it out.
O'NEILL: The following day Jim Knaver gets a terrible phone call from the coroner's office. Search dogs discovered remains at his home believed to belong to his wife of 43 years Anna Irene Hastings, known by her friends and family as Toni. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Paradise, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "ON THE NATURE OF DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.