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A Model T, Abandoned as Paradise Burned, Emerges With Barely a Scratch

A Model T, Abandoned as Paradise Burned, Emerges With Barely a Scratch


PARADISE, Calif. — Ron Westbrook’s house is gone. The burned hull of a washer is visible in the rubble. A mangled satellite dish, too. In his collapsed garage, two cars, including a beloved 1941 Plymouth, are no more than blackened shells.

But at the end of Mr. Westbrook’s driveway, in the shade of charred pines, a 103-year-old Ford Model T somehow escaped with only minor paint damage, standing out like a museum piece in a vast landscape of destruction.

The wooden steering wheel, the leather bench seat, the brassy grill, even the for-sale sign on the back — “Runs Very Well,” it attests — were left untouched as the Camp Fire tore an indiscriminate path through the town of Paradise.

For Mr. Westbrook, 74, the car’s survival was only slight comfort. Like most other Paradise residents, he has been through hell. The fire has scorched 135,000 acres, killed at least 56 people and left the quiet town of retirees uninhabitable.

“Just losing the house is one thing,” said Mr. Westbrook, who does not plan to rebuild. “But when you lose your whole town, it’s kind of overwhelming.”

Mr. Westbrook and his wife, Bonnie Thomas, scrambled out of town on Thursday with only a few minutes’ notice. He had been at the Paradise hospital for a checkup when he heard that a fire was approaching. He had undergone open-heart surgery a couple of weeks earlier after suffering a heart attack, and was back for a follow-up appointment. No doctor was available, and the building was being evacuated. (It is now a pile of ashes.)

The couple returned home and thought for a moment about taking the Model T, which was on a trailer in the driveway, with them when they left, hitched to a Chevy Silverado. They decided against it, and took off in their other pickup truck instead, with a couple of changes of clothes but nothing else.

“I thought, ‘You know what, it’s stupid to risk a life for a Model T when there’s so many people trying to evacuate,’” Mr. Westbrook said.

They later watched their house burn down on CNN, and assumed that the old Ford had also been destroyed. Despite repeated attempts, they have not yet been allowed to return to their property.

“We’re trying to be as brave as we can,” said Mr. Westbrook, a retired Costco worker who has been staying with his sister since the fire. “When you start talking about it, it’s hard to talk about. We start choking up.”

When he is finally allowed back in, Mr. Westbrook will find a neighborhood in ruins. Houses are gone, trees stripped, power lines flattened. But there are odd patches of normalcy, testaments to the unpredictability of a wildfire. Down the block, an old Chevrolet El Camino was untouched. A festive lawn decoration in Mr. Westbrook’s yard survived. And so did the Model T.

The 1915 Ford, bought a year ago for $16,000, was just the latest antique car Mr. Westbrook had acquired. He had paid a mechanic to fix it up, and then practiced driving it on the country roads near his house, sometimes getting up to 35 m.p.h. But its skinny tires and unique pedal system made maneuvering it a challenge. He had recently put it up for sale.

“I’m too danged old to learn how to drive the thing right, and I don’t want to hurt it,” Mr. Westbrook said.

The old car’s fate is now fairly low on his list of concerns. There is insurance paperwork to deal with. Temporary lodging to find. A new life to prepare for, somewhere beyond Paradise.

“It’s leaving friends, it’s leaving doctors,” Mr. Westbrook said. “But the hospital burned up, and the doctor’s office is closed.”



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