Charlie Miles was in handcuffs on a desolate stretch of Skyway Road about halfway between his former home in the devastated town of Paradise and the church shelter in Chico where he has been sleeping on a cot. Miles, 27, was sitting cross legged on the ground with state rangers around him.
He was under arrest for the crime of attempting to return home.
“I passed my U.S. constitution test!” Miles said to the state forestry officer loading him into the back of his truck. Miles’ point was that he had broken no law. He said that authorities had nothing to charge with him, so they should not have cuffed him. He was firm with officers, but not disrespectful. Miles didn’t lose his dignity. Rather, he was trying to maintain his basic dignity as a human being.
The image of Miles being led away in handcuffs illustrated the next phase of reality after the deadliest wildfire in California history. The initial shock of the Camp Fire is giving way to the realization that economically challenged people like Miles have no place to go now. They have no place to call their own. They are dispossessed in the truest sense of the word. Donations of clothing and food won’t solve the crisis facing the many impoverished people who had little material wealth before the Camp Fire and now have nothing.
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What Miles lost – a trailer his parents bought for him – was not valuable enough to be insured, and he could not have afforded insurance if it had been.
Miles was living on food stamps before the Camp Fire. What few possessions he owned were in his trailer. His daily life was so far off the radar of tax rolls and insurance premiums and employment records and bank savings statements that Miles could find no official record that authorities had inspected his property for damage, or signs of life, since the Camp Fire came in waves of hellish flames.
All over Paradise, workers from the state Office of Emergency Services are dressed in white hazard suits and employing dogs to sift through a devastated town. They go from property to property, making an “X” with spray paint when they are done. When they find human remains, they call in a second crew with another dog to confirm their grim findings.
The lack of specific official information on his street drove Miles to search for his own answers.
He struck out on his own, on foot, hoping to cover the roughly eight-mile journey from Chico to Paradise without drawing attention to himself. He was spotted trying to cross Skyway, which is normally a busy artery connecting Chico to adjacent communities but now resembles a road behind enemy lines from some distant war.
Because of a mandatory evacuation order, you can’t be on Skyway unless you are law enforcement, media or are authorized utility workers, search and rescue personnel, hazardous materials specialists, or if you perform some other function needed in response to what may become the worst natural disaster California has experienced in a century.
Even though he slipped past law enforcement check points, Miles had no chance. Authorities have assembled a massive staging area on Skyway. Miles stood out in baggy gray T-shirt, gray beanie, baggy black pants and orange sneakers.
The simple act of exerting agency over one’s life, of trying to get home no matter how humble that home is, made Miles a suspect. His arrest took place late Thursday afternoon, seven days after the Camp Fire had chased him, his parents and his sister away from their dwellings in Paradise.
“We had just moved there 30 days (ago),” he said. “Everything we owned was up there but (authorities) didn’t even know we were living on that property.”
Miles said he and his parents had set up two trailers on a lot at 1542 Millwood Lane in Paradise. He said there was no house there, a claim backed up by images of the street on Google Earth.
He described his parents as disabled military veterans. A quarter of Paradise’s population is over the age of 65, like Miles’ mom and dad. About 10 percent of the population is veterans. The median age is 50.
He said he rose on the morning of Nov. 8 at 5:45 am. “I had coffee with my parents like I always do,” he said. “Then I was brushing my teeth and I looked up at the sky and it was gray.
“At that point, I started packing their stuff.”
The flames soon chased them.
“I was forced to drag everyone off the property,” he said. “My dad was helping my mom and I was carrying their belongings. There were trees exploding. People were trying to drive their cars out but they couldn’t. It was jammed. We passed the same truck seven times. It would go on ahead of us and then get caught in traffic and we would pass it. “
He dropped his parents off at the Ace Hardware store where people had gathered. He set out on foot to find his sister on the other side of town. They jammed his family – six people in all – into his sisters car. He said the trip to Chico took five hours.
“My parents were losing it,” he said of the journey.
Miles knows he is lucky that he is not one of the roughly 1,000 people missing, or the more than 70 confirmed dead, since the Camp Fire redefined wildfires in California. At last count the fire had burned 142,000 acres, or about 221 square miles. The Bee has reported that 52,000 people have been evacuated and 12,256 structures destroyed, nearly 10,000 of them homes.
But what he and his family have lost – what thousands have lost – is their sense of self determination. What they lost wouldn’t add up to much on a ledger sheet, but their dwellings and possessions were the touchstones of their lives. Now the dispossessed of the Camp Fire sit in their vehicles in Chico parking lots – or they sleep on shelter cots, as Miles does.
They aren’t allowed to return to see what they lost. They just sit in shocked silence with no real control over their lives.
“We have lost absolutely everything we owned,” Miles said to me by phone on Friday, after he had been released by officers without being charged. They basically drove him back to the Chico city limits and set him free, he said.
“They didn’t give me a ticket or anything,” Miles said.
He said a friend was able to return to their street and told him, everything is gone.
All over Paradise, the remains and personal effects from thousands of lives are merely rubble for state workers to sift through in a mournful search.
Four miles from where Miles lived, the Pine Springs mobile home park on Clark Road was completely leveled except for three mobile home units that miraculously survived untouched – units 18, 19 and 20. Victims of the fire have been found on the property. Everywhere you look, the personal effects are all that remain. On unit 18, a banner that reads “Family, home, friends” was untouched. So were the aging, coin operated Maytag washing machines. Like much of Paradise, the park is a graveyard of burned-out cars left behind because the flames came too quickly.
A Buddha statue, completely covered in soot, sits serenely across a service road from the untouched units. Small figurines are everywhere, little personal touches of home for people who didn’t have much but were clearly proud of where they lived. Many of the figurines, gnomes and garden decorations are of children at play. They are things, possibly merely decorative things, obviously. But seeing them left behind, covered in soot, is heartbreaking.
Who owned them? What became of the people?
And there, right in front of unit 20, is the most haunting possession of all. A walker just sits in the middle of the service road. Did the disabled person using it survive? Did the person die? Destruction surrounds it. People lived here, humble people, elderly people.
They didn’t have much, but it was theirs until it all went up flames in a way the rest of us are only beginning to comprehend.
This column has been changed to correct the reference to the presence of the California Highway Patrol. The law enforcement there were California rangers.