SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A man who had been hospitalized since the deadliest wildfire in California history incinerated a town in November has died, raising the number of people killed to 86, authorities said Thursday.
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office said 72-year-old Paul Ernest of Paradise succumbed to his wounds. Ernest’s son, Jessee Ernest, said his father died Monday of complications from burns on one-third of his body.
“He had a hard time keeping his lungs functioning,” Jessee Ernest said. “He put up a really good fight.”
Paul Ernest had been hospitalized since Nov. 8, when the fast-moving fire raced across the Sierra Nevada foothills, destroying nearly 15,000 homes in the city of 27,000 and surrounding hamlets. That day he had to be flown to a Sacramento-area hospital, Jessee Ernest said.
Jessee Ernest said that on the day of the fire, his father and mother, Suzie Ernest, tried to flee in their car but abandoned vehicles and fallen power lines blocked their path and they returned home and jumped on their all-terrain vehicles along with a neighbor to try and escape the inferno.
The road was impassable and soon they were flanked by flames and had to take shelter behind a boulder, Ernest said.
“My dad tried to cover my mom as much as he could but they said it was just a wall of fire torching over them,” he said.
Once the fire subsided, their neighbor drove his all-terrain vehicle and returned with an emergency crew that helped the couple and transported them to a firetruck. A helicopter flew them to University of California, Davis Hospital.
Like his father, his mother suffered third-degree burns on about 30% of her body, but she has been released from the hospital and is recovering at home in Chico, Jessee Ernest said.
Jessee Ernest said he and his sister and brother plan to set up a funeral service “as soon as my mom can get through it.”
Investigators blame the fire on faulty equipment owned by the San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas & Electric.