PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — Nearly four weeks after the devastating blaze leveled her town, Jennifer Christensen was allowed back to return to her home in Paradise, where the first thing she saw was her son's charred tricycle in the front yard.
Christensen was among hundreds of residents who were allowed back into neighborhoods on the east side of town for the first time since the Nov. 8 blaze, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes.
"It's unbelievable. You know, I never thought it would happen to me," said Christensen, 34, surveying how little was left. She had moved to Paradise about a year ago and lived with a couple that were like grandparents to her son. "Everything I worked so hard for is gone."
The first thing she saw as she pulled in was her 2-year-old son's tricycle, its tires melted and its steel frame charred. She found a safe with melted jewelry inside. She found remnants of porcelain dolls that her grandmother had given her every year for Christmas.
"I lost my kid's handprints and footprints from when he was born," she said. "This is all stuff that can't be replaced."
Some residents have been allowed back into nearby communities in the fire zone, but Wednesday marked the first time residents of Paradise got to see firsthand what was left of their town of 27,000 people, which was hit the hardest by the blaze.
Paradise Police Chief Eric Reinbold said that areas home to 4,700 people were reopened but it wasn't clear how many people were there. Many survivors have scattered to homes of friends and family in other parts of California.
More than 50,000 people in Paradise and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow were forced to quickly flee the towering, wind-driven flames that charred an area about the size of Chicago — 240 square miles (622 square kilometers) — and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century. Authorities said 10 people were still unaccounted for.
Earlier in the day, a long line of cars waited in a cold drizzle at a checkpoint to enter areas where evacuation orders had been lifted.
Crews in yellow slickers were still clearing debris from burned homes and removing trees from streets littered with melted plastic trash cans and hollowed vehicles on tireless rims.
The communities will have very limited services for the immediate future, and authorities urged returning residents to bring food, water and fuel for vehicles.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Dennis MacAleese said the utility has 4,000 people in the area working to restore electric and gas service to those who can receive it. He said the utility hopes to restore electrical service by the end of the month and gas by the first quarter of next year.
Residents returning Wednesday were given kits with gloves and hazmat suits and warned that they should not move back into homes until ash and hazardous waste have been cleared, and that rain could increase the risk of flash floods and mudslides.
Rebecca Rogers of Chico came to support Christensen, a friend, as she sifted through the remains of her belongings.
Rogers believes she found the remains of Christensen's cat, Marble, under what used to be her friend's bed.
"I don't want her to look. It's just too much, it's just too much," Rogers said, sobbing. "I've got to be strong. I've got to do this for her."
Rogers buried the cat's remains in the front yard.
Residents were warned they should not move back into homes until ash and hazardous waste have been cleared, and that rain could increase the risk of flash floods and mudslides.
Christensen said she is not sure of her future plans but feels so much loyalty for her town that recently she got a tattoo that reads, "Love is thicker than smoke," and below that on her arm: "Paradise Strong."
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.