PARADISE, Calif. — Robert Bean is digging through the remains of his parents’ home, looking for the fireproof safe.
He finds it blackened a couple feet from where it originally stood, its contents spilled out. Maybe the roof collapsed when the house burned, and the impact caused household objects to go flying. Around the burnt-out safe, Bean sees some of his father’s possessions: eyeglass cases full of memorabilia and antiques, books, coins. He collects them, places them in an ashy bucket that survived the flames. He calls his father and tells him what he found, trying to cheer him up when he delivers the news that none of his important documents survived.
He sorts through some colorful pieces of glass in the ashes. They were his stepmom’s treasures, passed down from her own mother ― she had saved them when the Tubbs fire struck Napa last year, but couldn’t rescue them this time.
He walks across the property, then disappears down the steps into the basement cellar where his parents kept their cases of wine. One by one, Bean plucks uncorked bottles from the ruins, lining them up on the walkway of the basement, assessing the damage. Some are still half-full, the bitter smell of spilled red wine filling the space.
The winds that fueled the Camp Fire on Nov. 8 pushed the flames so far and so quickly that most people left that morning without much thought, bringing their pets and the clothes on their backs.
Bean saw the fire coming. He lived at the lower end of Skyway, the major thoroughfare connecting the town to Chico. His proximity to Chico put him in a better position to evacuate than other Paradise residents and the people from the smaller towns of Magalia, Pulga and Concow. He thought he had time to get everything together. He helped his older neighbors pack their belongings and get safely out of town. He helped his two sons pack up and leave, and made sure his parents were OK, too. He packed some of his own things, and he even took a shower.
But when he went to get into his pickup to evacuate himself, the flames were moving so fast that he fled, on foot, as fast as he could. He jumped into an apartment complex pool down the street, and eventually got a ride with strangers making their way down Skyway.
Bean lives — lived — on Russell Drive, a winding road in Paradise, with a view of the canyon between Skyway and Centerville so stunning that he simply stood and stared at it.
“This is why people come to Paradise,” he says. “This, right here.”
Three of his homes were rented out: one to a construction worker, one to some college students, and one to one of his sons. He lived in the fourth. They all burned down. He maintained the landscape of all of his properties, knew his neighbors, loved his own home on the plot — the gated doorway, the small pond, the massive windows of the master bedroom that now lie shattered in the dirt.
There’s an immense freedom in the disaster’s aftermath, he says. An opportunity to start over. He marvels at what survived — the recently planted naked lady lilies in one neighbor’s yard, a fragile glass lawn ornament, the autumn leaves on the trees that didn’t burn.
Even the 1974 F-250 Bean left parked on Skyway with a truck bed full of brambles and dry leaves is still there, somehow. Everything surrounding the pickup — the home, the garden patio, the trailer, all of his construction projects — is gone.
“There is honestly no explanation for why this thing didn’t combust,” he says. “But let’s see if it starts anyway.”
The final miracle: It does.