LOS ANGELES – In many ways, the story of Ernie Foss runs right alongside the narrative of the state he loved, California. He was a surfer and skateboarder as a young man. He grew up in San Francisco and worked at a store in the hippie heyday of Haight-Ashbury, selling candles and crystals, a job that allowed him to pursue his passion of music. And then tech money flooded the city, his neighborhood was gentrified, and like so many others he was priced out.
He left San Francisco a decade ago and settled down in Paradise, Calif., near the woods. By then, he was sick and bedridden and often in pain, but he never stopped thinking of San Francisco. A few months ago, he sent his daughter, Angela Loo, on a mission: to go back to the city and take videos of his favorite places, so he could see how they had changed.
“His San Francisco roots were very important to him,” Loo said. “It’s where he got into music. And did his thing and where he raised his kids. It’s his hometown and he loved it very much and he missed it all the time.”
Those videos were some of the last glimpses of the city for Foss, who died at 63 a few days ago in the wildfire that reduced Paradise to ash. His body was found outside his home, near his minivan, in what Loo believes was a desperate attempt to escape with his stepson Andrew Burt, his caretaker, as the flames engulfed the street. Foss’ dog, Bernice, a little brown mutt he had rescued from a shelter, died there, too.
The Camp Fire, which tore through Paradise and its surroundings last week, has become the deadliest wildfire in modern California history, with at least 48 people confirmed dead. Another three people were killed in the Woolsey Fire, which raced through the mountains of Southern California near Malibu.
With so many still unaccounted for — in the hundreds, authorities say — and investigators scouring the ruins of Paradise and collecting DNA samples from relatives of the missing, the identities of many more victims are expected to emerge in the coming days and weeks. On Tuesday night, the Butte County sheriff, Kory Honea, said the number of missing was in the hundreds. The department has released a list with 103 names on it, which “in no way is a list of everybody,” said a spokesman for the department, Megan McCann.
Among those unaccounted for, although not on the list, is Burt, Loo’s stepbrother.
“I don’t have confirmation,” she said. “What I do have confirmation of is that he was last seen trying to help, or get help, for my dad to get him into their van, and failing at it. They just didn’t make it. I can’t imagine that he is alive, but we have not stopped looking. We are still calling the shelters every day. We are calling the hospitals every day.”
Foss is among a handful of the victims whose names have been released, as authorities slowly add to the roster of the dead. Jesus Fernandez, 48, died of smoke inhalation, probably trying to rescue his dog, King. Fernandez, nicknamed Zeus, had a son who lives in Las Vegas, and was described by a friend as someone “who people counted on in rough times.”
Also killed in the fire was Bill Godbout, 79, an influential figure in the early days of Silicon Valley who ran a popular electronics store. He was well-known in the hacker community, and remembered for his quirks, like his license to fly blimps. Robert Tuck, Godbout’s grandson, said that Godbout had stayed behind as his wife and relatives fled, probably to save his three cats.
As his family drove away, they looked back and “could see the fire coming down on the house,” Tuck said through tears. “He was listening to the radio report and thought he had a little more time.”
Loo spoke expansively about her father — his days as a musician in San Francisco, when he was in so many blues and rock bands that she couldn’t remember any of their names but one, Raine Daze. But she also recalled his last painful years in Paradise with lymphedema, a condition that swells the arms and legs.
“Whenever something like this happens, we tend to focus on all the positive attributes of a person,” she said. “Graciously ignoring all of their faults. My dad was not a perfect person. He struggled in life and was perfectly imperfect.”
Much of Foss’ music is lost, and so are many old photos, but there is one memento she does have: the scarf her father wore when he played music. A few years ago he said to her, “I want you to take your daddy’s rock ‘n’ roll scarf.” She described it as “like Mick Jagger’s scarf.”