Some residents of a Northern California town devastated by a catastrophic wildfire nearly a month ago were finally allowed to return home Wednesday to sift through the charred remains in search of precious family heirlooms, photos and other possessions that may have survived.
A long line of cars waited in a cold drizzle at a checkpoint on their way to neighborhoods on the east side of Paradise, where evacuation orders have been lifted.
Beyond the checkpoint, crews in yellow slickers were still clearing debris from burned homes and removing trees from streets littered with melted plastic trash cans and hollowed vehicles sitting on tireless rims.
Before heading to their home, Joyce McLean, 73, and her husband, Jerry McLean, stopped at a store to buy paper towels and plastic bags.
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"We didn't own expensive things, but we had a lot of memory things," she said, recalling Christmas ornaments made by her son when he was a child and mementos from her Canadian husband's great-grandmother. "If I can find a little piece of his family or just a little piece of my son, I would be happy."
Access to the neighborhoods was limited to residents on Wednesday, but they will be open to anyone on Thursday.
More than 50,000 people in Paradise and two neighboring communities were forced to flee the wind-driven fire that started Nov. 8, killing at least 85 people, destroying about 14,000 homes and blackening 240 square miles.
Authorities said 10 people were still unaccounted for in what was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century.
McLean said she has seen photos on social media of her destroyed home and knows one of the only things that survived was an American flag flying on a pole.
"We lost everything but the clothes on our backs," she said about their dash for safety.
McLean said returning after her harrowing escape during the fire had made her nervous and emotional, but she hoped she could at least recover the flag. They are now renting a house in the region and plan to rebuild in Paradise.
The communities will have very limited services for the immediate future, and authorities urged residents to bring food, water and fuel for vehicles.
PG&E said Wednesday it
hopes to restore electrical service in fire-ravaged areas to all customers who can receive it by the end of the month. Power will be restored on a rolling basis until that time, so some customers will get electricity before then.
The utility hopes to restore gas to the area by the first quarter of next year.
Residents were also warned they should not move back into homes until ash and hazardous waste have been cleared. They were also told that rain could increase the risk of flash floods and mudslides.
The ferocious fire trapped people in cars and surrounded the town's hospital, forcing the evacuation of about 60 patients. The hospital is still standing, but several smaller buildings, including offices, were destroyed.
Officials said the hospital will reopen but they have not said when.
CORRECTION (Dec. 5, 2018, 12:55 p.m. PT): This story has been corrected to show the sheriff's office has not given guidance for when all Paradise residents will be allowed to return home, not that they will be allowed to return on Thursday.
Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.