Not long after the Camp Fire in Northern California roared through the town of Paradise, quickly turning it into an inferno, Chattanooga resident John Westbrook learned his parents' home — the home in which he was raised — had likely been destroyed.
By that afternoon Westbrook found out his parents, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Paul and Judy Westbrook, and the rest of his family members whose live nearby were safe, he said. But "nobody knew about the houses yet."
"All we knew was the firefighters were saying, 'It's a total devastation, and 95 percent of the town is gone.' So we kind of assumed."
At least 48 people have been confirmed dead in the wildfire that obliterated Paradise, according to the Associated Press, making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded state history. The exact number of missing remains unclear.
It wasn't until a couple of days after the fire ravaged their home that his brother, David Westbrook, was able to get to the property and survey the damage. His sister, Krystalynn Martin, then launched a GoFundMe campaign to help get their parents back on their feet.
In total, four of the family's homes were incinerated, with the exception of any brick structures, such as foundations and chimneys.
"Everything is just flat," John Westbrook told the Times Free Press on Tuesday, holding up a picture on his phone of what's left of his parents' house.
A grey/brown haze permeates the scene, where a once-white garage door lies crumpled and blackened from the fire.
Around it, nothing is left but a filing cabinet, a portion of a brick wall and a chimney still standing tall amid the ash and rubble.
"It wasn't a big house, but it had a ton of love in it," Martin said. " Some of those sentimental things can't be replaced, the little things that make home."
That Thursday morning, David Westbrook got the alert and tried to make his way to their parents' home.
"But there were roadblocks, and they wouldn't let him through to the side where my parents are," John Westbrook said.
His mom, 78, and dad, 84, usually sleep in, John Westbrook said, but that morning Judy Westbrook had been awake since 7 a.m.
"So [my brother] let her know like, 'There's a fire, you gotta get out,'" John Westbrook said.
But Judy Westbrook needed help transporting her husband because he is disabled and unable to move on his own.
"She called an ambulance, and they didn't have any available. All of the emergency equipment was taken up by that point," John Westbrook said. " She didn't have a way to get him into the car."
Judy Westbrook knew emergency personnel may not make it to her and her husband, Martin said. "So my mom told me they actually had a conversation, that if they couldn't get [my dad] out, they would go down together in the house."
John Westbrook said not much time had gone by when two neighbors, both elderly women, saw Judy Westbrook and asked if she needed help.
"So three frail, little elderly ladies drag [my dad] out — literally drag him — to the car," John Westbrook said.
By then, the fire was approaching their street, so Paul and Judy Westbrook quickly made their way to Chico, California.
"[Their] whole street is pretty much gone," John Westbrook said. "All the houses are gone. The whole city is pretty much gone. It's like doomsday."
For John Westbrook, his main concern was his family's lives.
"Everybody made it out. To me, that's the most valuable piece," he said. "Most things can be replaced."
But he's also worried about his mother.
"She had this ongoing project of documenting our family history, memories," he said.
The garage was full of boxes of things she'd collected over the years. Things like her husband and children's artwork, journals, poems, photos, old home movies. And she had just brought in an heirloom piano that belonged to her mother.
"Even though being homeless is huge, that's the practical part," John Westbrook said. "But also there's the heartbreak of, basically, we have no family history. All of it is wiped out before it could have been digitized."
"I haven't really processed this," he said. "It doesn't seem like it's real. I'm talking about it like it's real, but I actually don't believe it yet. I think I'll have to see it to have it really sink in and the reality of what it means. Because, even though we have memories it is sad to lose the actual photos or journals and in my head, it's all there. I don't feel the loss as much as I do when I think about my daughter. Like, how do I pass these memories on to her? I've got to tell the stories and just let her use her imagination."
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