PARADISE, Calif. — The Bartek family lost more than 30 years of memories as a quickly spreading wildfire burned down their childhood home.
For five days, Phil Bartek and his two adult children wondered if they had been lucky enough to be the last house standing. But on Monday, they found out their home didn’t make it and they had photographic proof.
Only the mailbox was left standing at their address in Paradise, California, where their father still lived. The family had called this home since 1985.
“They didn’t have time to get anything. My mom’s ashes were in the house and they didn’t have time to get that,” Justin Bartek, who lives in Los Angeles, said on Monday.
Finding out their childhood home was gone compounded their loss. The news hit hard, especially after his sister lost her home in Paradise only days earlier.
Phil Bartek, his daughter Aimee and her husband and child, along with both their pets, are staying with a relative in Chico for now.
A lifetime of memories gone
When the fire came, Phil Bartek only had enough time to grab his medication, a change of clothes and his cat. Bartek said he only had 15 minutes to vacate his home.
It happened fast, and it was all surreal. He rushed to pick up his granddaughter, Mia, from school. And they managed to save the family’s border collie mix, LC.
“The fire moved so quick. There were other people that left after us that were literally driving through fire on both sides of the road,” the 63-year-old said on Tuesday. “We were really lucky.”
When Bartek learned his home was gone, he said he was devastated but he was relieved to know. He had been waiting five days to learn what happened.
“I just woke up this morning thinking it’s just a bad dream and we’re going to go home, but I know that’s not going to happen and we’re going to have to find a new home,” Bartek said.
‘I was hoping I would be the last house standing’
Aimee Bartek-Regnier, Justin’s sister, was also born in Paradise and still lives there. Her father’s home is the home she still has a connection to.
“Your childhood home is your home. That’s where you feel safe and secure. The place where you can always go back to,” the 37-year-old said.
Bartek-Regnier, her husband, their 10-year-old daughter Mia and their dog lived a mile from her father. They lived in downtown Paradise.
“I was hoping I would be the last house standing or there would be a pocket of houses standing,” the baker and grocery store employee said.
She learned the home they had been renting had burned down by seeing the aftermath on social media. Local officials, first responders and others posted images and videos of the homes they saw, along with each location, she said.
“My white picket fence, my trellis, everything you’d identify my house with was gone,” Bartek-Regnier said. “We’re just waiting on a picture so that we can have our closure that way. I’ve known since Friday that our house was gone.”
Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said 80% to 90% of homes in residential neighborhoods are gone after the Camp Fire.
“Out of all the people we know in Paradise, we only know one person who still has a house,” Bartek-Regnier said.
They want to stay in Paradise if they can
Both Bartek-Regnier and her father said they want to stay in Paradise. They know they have no houses to go back to, but this is their home.
“It’s hard thinking about starting a new life elsewhere when you don’t know anybody. We don’t have anything, but we are still in our familiar surroundings,” Bartek-Regnier said.
Paradise is a beautiful place and a town where everyone knows everyone, she said. She grew up there and so has her daughter, Mia.
“In times of tragedy, people have always come together in Paradise,” she said.
Her father is not sure what his next move is yet. He knows the chances of rebuilding where his home once was may be difficult.
“We go back and forth from trying to stay in the area or starting a new life in another town or out of state,” Bartek said. “It’s really a tough call because we’ve been here for so long.”
Bartek has lived in Paradise since 1979. He and his wife raised their two children there. Bartek worked at supermarket chain Safeway and is now retired.
He rebuilt his life after his wife passed away in 2014, he said. He leads a youth ministry group for teens and children at his church. He also helps with the music.
The widower even found love again. Bartek met Susan at their church and they’re engaged to be married in February 2019.
Bartek and his fiancée had started moving her furniture into his home and had redecorated the place together. She was set to move in February. Her rental home also burned down in the wildfire, so she’s staying with her daughter.
Their wedding rings were lost in the fire, as were many of the centerpieces and other wedding decorations that were at his house.
Their chapel is still standing, but many of the church’s buildings were lost. Their caterer’s restaurant was also destroyed.
Yet he said the wedding date of February 2 is still set.
“My life’s great except for the fire. I’m trying to stay optimistic because I have a lot to look forward to,” Bartek said. “I have to rebuild and rethink the future, like everybody else.”