National News

Risking All to Save Helltown From Burning

Posted November 20, 2018 10:26 a.m. EST

The wildfire that would become the deadliest in California’s history had just begun ripping through Paradise when Dharma Tony LaRocca started worrying about Helltown.

LaRocca, a winemaker living in nearby Chico, grew up in Helltown — a tight-knit Butte Creek Canyon community just northwest of Paradise. He recalled a childhood of fishing and dirt-biking with neighbors who felt more like family; potlucks at the local schoolhouse-turned-museum; and tales of the town’s history as a mining destination known for some of the prettiest gold in the world.

By the time LaRocca’s parents got there in the late 1970s, though, Helltown was known mostly as a hippie haven. That communal spirit infused his upbringing.

And now, LaRocca thought, the wind-whipped Camp Fire was about to burn it all down.

He called his parents and sister. Once they were safe at his house, he hopped in a truck with his brother-in-law and a buddy. They got to a ridge and peered out at their little town.

“I looked down into the canyon and it looks like something out of Dante’s Inferno,” LaRocca, 47, said. “It’s dark out, but all you see is fire.”

Despite knowing better, LaRocca got to work trying to save Helltown. The three people in his group, and one other man who was driving around the town, sweated through the night digging fire breaks with an excavator and plunging shovels into the smoldering dirt to put out hot spots.

The next day, he said, friends relieved them, although he was not sure how they managed to get in.

“By that time, the whole canyon was burned,” he said. “Helltown was the only sliver that survived.”

His boots were melted and holes were burned into his sweatshirt, but the houses were still standing.

Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman, had empathy for LaRocca’s desire to save his hometown but was not pleased to hear about his efforts.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” he said. “It’s not advisable — you will die.”

And the fires this year have moved with a speed and ferocity that cannot be overstated, McLean said.

LaRocca said he did not know if he would make the same decision again. But he said it was worth it. The old schoolhouse will be there when the smoke clears.