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Wildfire 'Cremated' His Town, but a Centenarian Lived to Tell the Tale

Now 101 years old, Harold Maurer has moved on

portrait of harold maurer seated on a couch holding his harmonica

Photo by: Katherine Skiba

CHICO, California — Harold Maurer was 100 years old when the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, California, a year ago.

Perhaps the oldest person to escape the inferno, he says his survival was “pure luck.”

That’s not exactly all it was. Maurer, a widower who lived alone, fled his home that morning with his harmonica and his late wife’s jewelry. Driving off in his 1998 Lincoln Town Car, he realized he didn’t have enough gas to make it off the mountain so took shelter in a parking lot at his church. His son Jack, 72, desperately looking for him, found his dad asleep in his car.

Today the gray-thatched widower, 101, resides in Chico. Six of his relatives — the Maurers span four generations — were also in the neighboring town of Paradise when disaster knocked on their front doors and destroyed their homes.

Town was “cremated”

“My whole family made it out,” Maurer says now. “But the town was cremated. That’s the word I use.”

He speaks from his son’s comfortable home on a man-made lake in Chico, where all the Maurers now live.

Harold Maurer still owns his vacant land in Paradise but he’s staying put. “How am I going to rebuild?” he asks. “At my age, that would be foolish.”

“It’s a catastrophe that happened. It’s changed the lives of many, many people. Myself as an old ducker, I’m lucky. My mind is still clear, but the body’s getting a little bit chipped away at. And my health isn’t bad, but I could pass away tomorrow. But I’m ready for when the good Lord wants me.”

Maurer’s family and Christian faith are the pillars of his life. He plays the harmonica for fun, sounding out “On Top of Old Smokey” with gusto. And he remains a celebrity in the town where he’d lived for about 30 years.

Last summer, when the Save Mart grocery in Paradise staged a ceremonial reopening, Maurer cut the red ribbon as the mayor and firefighters looked on and applauded.

The father and his son built their careers in Orange County — Harold in accounting, sales and real-estate sales and Jack developing, building and selling residential and commercial property. After about 35 years, the Maurers left what the son called the “rat race” and retired to Paradise. Until the out-of-control fire in the rugged, sun-drenched foothills of the Sierra Nevada turned their cozy retirement years upside down.

“It’s a catastrophe that happened. It’s changed the lives of many, many people. Myself as an old ducker, I’m lucky."

— Harold Maurer

Frantic morning

When Jack Maurer checked in at his father’s home on the morning of the fire, Harold had already fled. By the time Jack got out, parts of the house, and his late mother’s organ, were engulfed in flames. That his dad’s car had little gasoline was a “blessing in disguise,” the son says, because some victims, trapped in vehicles, were burned alive.

The men sheltered in the church parking lot with about 100 other people who panicked because “the whole fire was surrounding us,” Jack Maurer says. Hours went by and cell towers collapsed in flames before it was deemed safe for them to drive down Paradise Ridge into Chico.

Like his father, Jack Maurer isn’t going back to Paradise. “I was all gung-ho about rebuilding right off the bat, but it’s such a massive disaster,” says the son, who had cardiac surgery after the fire. He thinks it will be a decade or two before the town recovers. “So not in our lifetime,” he says, and, nodding to his father, “not in his.”

“I don’t know about that,” his father replies. “I may outlive you yet.”

The family patriarch, Harold Maurer lost his wife of 71 years, Lorene, in 2012 and she was laid to rest in Paradise Cemetery.

“My wife is resting up there, her remains,” he says now. “She’s in heaven, saving a chair for me.”

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