PARADISE, Calif — Nearly a year after the Camp Fire claimed his father’s life, Phil Binstock returned to the spot where his father’s house once stood. Now, all that remains are the ashes the Camp Fire left behind.
The Camp Fire sparked on Nov. 8, 2018. In a matter of hours, it wiped the town of Paradise off the map. Thousands of homes were destroyed and 85 people lost their lives in Butte County.
One of those 85 people was 88-year-old Julian Binstock.
Julian lived in Paradise for 10 years. Each of those years he was awarded a plaque at the Feather Canyon Retirement Community for being the “Funniest Resident.” He was married to his late wife Elisabetta for roughly 60 years. He enjoyed his life at his cottage with his dog Jack, a gentle border collie who died by Julian’s side.
Julian’s son, Phil, reflected on his father’s life a year after the fire and everything his family lost.
“After my mother died, I’d given my father a book of all kinds of pictures I had of my mother. I gave it to him on the condition that I would take it back when he was no longer here,” said Phil before taking a long pause. “All gone.”
Phil said the last time he had been where his father’s house one stood, the property was twisted and burned.
"I can’t believe they cleaned it all up. This is not what I expected, but wow," Phil said as he took it in. "It’s eerie to be here and see all these trees that burned. This was the inferno and yet today, with this beautiful weather, there’s something uncanny about it."
As the car drove through what remains of Paradise, Phil remembers driving the same path a few days after the Camp Fire to look for his father. He tried to get ahold of him, calling the retirement community, his father’s phone and anyone else he could think of but the calls went unanswered.
“Within seconds fire just engulfed the entire house,” he said.
Phil never heard from his father. He visited every single evacuation center for weeks trying to find him. He made flyers, he posted on Facebook, his family didn’t give up hope.
Then, after a body was found, an investigator asked for a DNA sample. It took two weeks to confirm the worst. Julian was one of the 85 people killed in the Camp Fire.
"Sympathetically, kindly, gently, confirmed the body they found was my father," Phil said.
The officer who broke the news to Phil stayed with him until a grief counselor could arrive.
“Dad was one of the two people they could not account for,” Phil said.
Julian’s body was found in the bathtub with his rescue dog, Jack. Phil believes the fire came too quickly for his father to get out.
Julian was the youngest of seven children. He was valedictorian, graduated from Harvard on full scholarship, and retired as a vice president for Warner Bros. He was a linguist.
"It’s argued to how many languages he knew. When you include those two (Latin and ancient Greek) he spoke seven languages," Phil said. "We miss dad. There are moments when I think to myself, 'I wonder what this word means? I’m going to call dad.' Then I realize there is no one to call."
Phil is choosing to remember the funny man his father was, the man who went from an abysmally poor family to graduating from and Ivy League school.
"On January 1 (2019), I decided I wasn’t going to mourn my father," Phil said. "When I think of my father now, I think of his accomplishments."
Phil is not alone. There are so many other families going through the same loss. It’s hard to comprehend: 85 victims.
"I want people to know it’s not personal. The fire wasn’t personal. The grief is not an emotion. It’s a combination of emotions. It’s perfectly normal, and people should not be told 'it’s been a year, you should be done with it.' It’s absolutely nonsense," Phil said. "People who make comments like that have never suffered a great loss. Yes, as time goes by maybe it becomes a little bit easier. Let people mourn."
One year later, he is looking away from the pain to the memories of his father, all that’s left from his time in Paradise.
"It’s not going to be an easy day. I’m trying not to mourn my dad and enjoy the good things. The pain is still there. Go do something to celebrate that person," Phil said.
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