Several Indian Americans lost homes and livelihood in Calif. camp fire

People come to terms with the loss of their homes and livelihood in California’s worst fire


Ritu Jha



Vishal Mahindru may fondly remember the fireworks during Diwali. But this time, there was nothing pleasant about the fireworks.


“Until Wednesday night we were in a Diwali mood, distributing sweets, but all changed the next morning [November, 8], when the fire engulfed 80 percent of the city of Paradise,” Mahindru, a resident on Neal Road in Paradise, California, told indica. He can still recall the gasoline going off in cars before a raging forest fire that’s been dubbed the Camp Fire.


“The sound of cars explosion …oh so many, It was terrifying,” he said. “It was a big night and the whole day was chaotic. I went out and saw black clouds… fire… like you see over a volcano or in a picture of an atomic blast.


According to the latest figures from CAL FIRE, the Camp Fire started in Butte County in California, burned down approximately 138,000 acres and has killed at least 63 people. There are 600 people missing and more than 10,000 structures destroyed, making this the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.


Mahindru said his wife put on the television which provided no warning of any danger, and left for work at 7:30 am. A few days ago, PG& E had distributed a flyer mentioning the possibility of a power shutdown, which they did for a few hours on Wednesday but it was back on. Mahindru stayed home with his two daughters and son.


The house lost power and he opened the door to see the fire at the barn, home to his two horses, fives donkeys and chicken. He told his children to prepare to leave. An ambulance and fire truck came his way. Just then, his employees called from a gas station that had burned down. Another house he owned a few miles away was also gutted.


“It was pretty clear, it’s going to be bad,” Mahindru said, “I kept telling my kids it’s going to be okay. But when my neighbors’ home started to burn, I had to let my kids go.” They did not know what to do without their mother around, and he was trying to ensure that the fire did not reach 40-50 stored bales of hay.


Mahindru had a small generator, but it had just enough power to draw water from the well and charge the phone. He could not use the power-hungry heater, there was no propane available, and the authorities were clear that if he left he could not return to the house.


The children are now safe in Chico, where he owns the Taj Indian restaurant. Mahindru has also asked his staff to give free food to anyone claiming to be a victim of the Camp Fire.


“It’s terrifying. People died because it happened early morning, many were not able to leave their home,” Mahindru said.


Ironically, he said, many houses there used to sport no trespassing signs, marking off territory.


‘Now if you drive around the neighborhood you can see signboards saying ‘No trespassing’ before house in ashes,” he said.


There were 200 houses in the neighborhood; now there are four, Mahindru said, adding that he went about feeding the animals the fleeing people left behind but now the food is all gone and that he is hoping more supplies come in. In addition, it’s been a week and his wife has not been allowed to return home.


Another resident of Paradise, Paramjit Singh, who lives on the border of Chico and Paradise, told indica it was 11:30 pm on Thursday when his family was asked to vacate the area. The fire that set off at 6:30 am then reached near Chico as well.


“We went to Sacramento,” said Singh. “It was terrifying. As you drive you see that all the gas stations are gone. Businesses, convenience stores, fast food outlets all gone. And then there people on the road.”


“The new sign board is still there but the motel burned down,” Sangita Patel, the owner of what was the Paradise Motel told indica. She takes a deep breath before continuing: “All my memories are burned. My daughter grew up in that motel. We’ve lost everything.”


It was 9:45 am and the sky was all black from the fires on the other side of town when her life changed. Was there any hint what was to come?


“No, nothing,” she said. “The firefighters were busy; even the police were busy on the other side. “Nobody knew what to do,” She described as akin to what one could see in a movie.


“I was recording video of the black cloud to show my son who lives in Los Angeles. Then someone said they could see smoke at the motel. We got not even five minutes to grab our stuff.”


They just pulled out their passports and two set of clothes and fled down the road, flanked by on both sides by the flames, fed by a scorching, ravening wind.


“I still wonder how we managed to survive,” said Patel. “Now I don’t have a courage to go back to the motel. “It’s over, it’s gone…my home,” she said, striving to control her emotions. “A house you can build. But those memories… How can you rebuilt that?”


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