By Cindy Chang Los Angeles Times
PARADISE, Calif. — Policing a town empty of people and absent of crime was never part of Officer Perry Walters’ training.
Before fire leveled the town of Paradise, Calif., the calls that crackled over Walters’ radio were familiar to every American cop — domestic violence, disturbing the peace, drugs, burglary, vandalism.
But then came the frantic battle to evacuate amid an apocalyptic inferno. Twice on the morning of Nov. 8, Walters was trapped with terrified residents as flames closed in around them.
Now, he patrols the streets in the eerie isolation of a zone still strictly off-limits to almost everyone, looking out for looters but not seeing a soul. Deprived of familiar landmarks, he sometimes overshoots a turn.
Always in the background, like an alarm that won’t shut off, is the acrid odor of things that were not meant to burn.
Walters’ home, down the mountain, was unscathed. Of the Paradise Police Department’s 20 sworn officers, eight lost their homes.
Yet they continued to work, becoming eyewitnesses for residents desperate to know about homes, neighbors, pets.
More often than not, the news was bad. Officers’ cellphones filled with photos of rubble that they snapped for residents who could not enter the fire zone but needed to see what had become of their homes.
Some officers found human remains, reduced to bits of vertebra and skull.
The fire took the lives of at least 88 people, with hundreds still missing.
Walters, a father of three, choked up recalling a brief conversation with his wife as he implored residents to flee their homes.
“I told her I was scared, but I was going to be OK. I told her it wasn’t my time. I wasn’t going to leave.”
Police officers are intimately familiar with a community’s underbelly. Even Paradise, population 26,000, had one. Senior citizens came here seeking a peaceful retirement, unaware of the meth and heroin users lurking under the pine trees.
But with no people, there is no crime.
On an afternoon nearly three weeks after the fire, Walters escorted a Paradise funeral home director back into town.
Eric Smith had been approved by officials for a quick foray to retrieve vital documents at Rose Chapel Mortuary and Crematory, which was still standing after the fire.
Identifying fire victims’ remains has been difficult, and requests for burials have just started to come in, said Smith, who has been working out of an affiliated funeral home in Oroville. There might soon be a rush — he had gotten five calls that day.
Next, Walters checked on a man who had hunkered down, survived and refused to leave.
At the end of a narrow lane lined with burned-out cars, Brad Weldon’s house was an oasis, the front garden still green.
Weldon said he fought the flames with hoses and 5-gallon buckets. His 90-year-old mother and her caregiver had stayed, too.
Since the Camp fire, Walters had been bringing food and water to Weldon and a handful of other holdouts.
One of them, tired of the solitude and lack of modern conveniences, left the day before. Weldon, a 62-year-old contractor, had no such plans.
“I can’t leave,” he said. “I will come back to nothing. The looters will take it all.”
Weldon, whose Paradise roots go back to his great-grandparents, questioned why journalists came and went when residents could not.
He was free to stay in his home, but if he left to get supplies, officials manning the checkpoints on every road into town would not let him back in. One reason, Walters explained: Search and rescue crews were still combing through the rubble for human remains.
“If we allow the next two, or five, people,” Walters said, “before we know it, we’re repopulated in an uncontrolled setting.”
Policing was a career switch for Walters, 40, who joined the Paradise police three years ago after running a small business.
He has a friendly gleam in his eyes and smiles easily. But when necessary, he draws a hard line.
“You’re asking me for exceptions — things I’ve been saying no to people all day,” he said to a man trying to get into town to retrieve a safe.
Walters thinks of this period as the calm before the storm. When residents come back, he will have plenty to do. He speaks hopefully of rebuilding the town.
Eric Reinbold, who became police chief less than two months before the fire, said city officials had assured him his officers would still have jobs, despite the loss of property and sales tax revenue that paid their salaries.
A Paradise native, Reinbold lost his home in the fire, but his family and two dogs are safe.
At the police station, officers are starting to refer to that day as simply “the 8th.”
Walters responded to the first report of a spot fire at the end of Dean Road about 7:40 a.m. He could see flames on the other side of the ridge. It was bad enough to start evacuating residents.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Robert Pickering, the only other officer on duty, was headed to another spot fire near the hospital.
The flames were spreading. Walters barked orders over his intercom and kept his finger on the horn. He directed cars south before realizing that the fire had jumped the road. So he turned the whole caravan north.
At Pentz Road and Skyway, traffic was at a standstill, with flames rising on all sides.
Walters devised a desperate plan. He asked the driver of a Pepsi truck to park across the intersection. They unloaded boxes of soft drinks to form a protective ring, thinking that people could shelter in the truck or behind the truck.
Southbound traffic started moving again. Farther down Skyway near Clark Road, Walters ran into another bottleneck.
By this time, the whole police department had scrambled into action.
Dispatchers were inundated with calls from residents begging to be rescued. But officers could not get to every house. Instead, they focused on the urgent task of shepherding drivers on the main roads.
With the help of other officers, Walters smashed the glass doors of a business. Several hundred people sheltered inside or in the parking lot for about four hours. The air was unbearably smoky and hot. The trees across the road were ablaze, and firefighters beat the flames back.
At the hospital, Pickering made a last stand on a square of concrete with patients, staff members and sheriff’s deputies, surrounded by a ring of fire.
A nurse asked whether they were going to die.
“I’m too stubborn. Not today,” Pickering replied. “I’m going to get you through this.”
Officer Justin Chamness, 25 years old with two years in the department, was headed to a training class with his new police dog, Koda.
Then he heard the commotion on the radio. He told his wife to flee with their two young children, threw on a police vest over his Hawaiian shirt and jeans and started directing traffic.
His wife called, terrified. Drive down the bike path, he advised. He could hear his 3-year-old daughter crying in the background: “Daddy! Big fire, dark sky. Mommy, get away from fire — ouchy.”
Later, at an intersection, he spotted their car. They were safe. He raced to the high school to help evacuate students.
The next day, he returned to his house in Magalia. In the smoldering wreckage, he unearthed his wife’s wedding ring.
Pickering, who also lived in Magalia, found flames still lapping at what was left of his house. He had raised his children there, fixing up the patio, floor and backyard in his spare time over the last 20 years.
He plans to rebuild eventually. In the meantime, he is purchasing a new house in Chico.
Chamness bought a trailer to live in for the time being. Koda the Belgian Malinois patrols the empty streets with him on the night shift, though there are no drugs or criminals to sniff out.
His daughter is haunted by the fire and how black the sky was. He is not sure if this is a good place to raise kids.
But for now, it is a good place to be a cop.