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Joyce and Jerry McLean sifted through twisted metal and broken glass Wednesday on the property where their mobile home once stood, hoping to find precious family possessions that might have survived the devastating California wildfire that leveled Paradise.
They were among hundreds of residents who were finally allowed back into neighborhoods on the east side of town a month after the blaze killed at least 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes.
The couple, wearing white hazmat suits and leather gloves, searched for his gold wedding band, a Bible that belonged to his great-grandmother and Christmas ornaments their son made when he was a boy.
“We didn’t own expensive things, but we had a lot of memory things,” said Joyce McLean, 73. “If I can find a little piece of his family or just a little piece of my son, I would be happy.”
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Earlier in the day, a long line of cars waited in a cold drizzle at a checkpoint to enter areas where evacuation orders had been lifted for an area where 4,700 people once lived.
Crews in yellow rain slickers were still clearing debris from burned homes and removing trees from streets littered with melted plastic trash cans and hollowed vehicles on tireless rims.
Some residents have been allowed back into nearby communities in the fire zone, but Wednesday marked the first time residents of Paradise got a firsthand look at what was left of their town of 27,000 people that was hit the hardest by the blaze.
More than 50,000 people in Paradise and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow were forced to quickly flee the towering, wind-driven flames that charred 240 square miles (622 square kilometers). Authorities said 10 people were still unaccounted Wednesday for in what was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century.
Joyce McLean said she had seen photos on social media of her burned home and knew one of the only things that survived was an American flag still flying on its pole.
“We lost everything but the clothes on our backs,” she said about their harrowing dash for safety.
In their search Wednesday, they found tools that belonged to Jerry McLean’s father and a set of souvenir spoons that belonged to Joyce McLean’s mother, but there was no sign of the precious items they had hoped to find.
“I don’t think we’re going to find the Bible, not much chance,” said Jerry McLean, 72.
Joyce McLean said the thought of returning after the fire had made her nervous and emotional, but she wanted to at least recover the flag.
“I think something was telling us to be there,” she said about the images she saw on social media. “The only thing that was standing was the flagpole, with the flag still flying, and our welcome sign with our name and address.”
Rebecca Rogers of Chico came to support her friend, Jennifer Christensen, who lost her Paradise home in the fire.
Rogers believes she found the remains of Christensen’s cat, Marble, under what used to be her friend’s bed. Rogers was in tears when she approached the McLeans to ask for a bag to gather the remains.
“I don’t want her to look. It’s just too much,” Rogers sobbed before burying the remains in the front yard of her friend’s home. “I’ve got to be strong; I’ve got to do this for her. “
The communities will have very limited services for the immediate future, and authorities urged returning residents to bring food, water and fuel for vehicles.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Dennis MacAleese said the utility has 4,000 people in the area working to restore electric and gas service to those who can receive it. He said the utility hopes to restore electrical service by the end of the month and gas by the first quarter of next year.
Residents returning Wednesday were given kits with gloves and hazmat suits and warned that they should not move back into homes until ash and hazardous waste have been cleared, and that rain could increase the risk of flash floods and mudslides.
The McLeans are temporarily renting a house in the region, but they plan to move back to Paradise and have already bought a two-bedroom mobile home to replace the one they lost.
They also intend to keep searching the rubble for their precious possessions.
“Today was just kind of a come-to-Jesus meeting to see what’s here, what’s not — mostly not,” Jerry McLean said.
Before leaving for the day, he took down the flag and folded it.
“When we come back, she’ll go up again,” he said.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.