Don’t Forget About Paradise, or Those Beside It
CHICO, Calif. — One evening, here in the college town of Chico, as I was pulling weeds from the vegetable beds in my front yard, I looked up to find an elderly woman watching me, her little dog tugging at her. “I miss my garden,” she hollered from the sidewalk. I nodded, after pausing, half-expecting her to say more. “I’m from Paradise,” she continued.
“Oh,” I said, the only utterance of condolence I could muster before she went on her way. A shorthand that surely sounds familiar to those who’ve lived near disaster — in Tornado Alley, or along the Gulf Coast — “I’m from Paradise,” has come to mean, “I’ve lost everything.”
It’s been over five months since the most destructive wildfire in California’s history swept through the Sierra Nevada foothills of Butte County. At its worst, the Camp Fire engulfed more than a football field every 3 seconds, claiming over six dozen lives in the end, obliterating the old gold rush town, Paradise, which is a few miles drive away.
The panicked weeks after the Camp Fire, which captured the nation’s attention and empathy, stretched achingly into months of slow-paced of recovery. Much of the initial, adrenaline-fueled hope was dampened by a wet, cold winter.
While smoke and embers tumbling across dry hills lent itself to compelling images, and cable b-roll, cameras have no pithy way of capturing the glum indignities of the aftermath here: Like how in February, Paradise residents who’d found the temporary solution of placing an RV on their yet-to-be-cleaned properties were told by FEMA they must leave or jeopardize the entire area’s share of the $1.7 billion dollars in Federal disaster cleanup funding, which pressured the local government to completely reverse its December decision to allow people back onto their burned land. (A total far short of the several billions a fuller recovery will require.)
Only 1 in 10 buildings are still standing. The lush canopies of Ponderosa pines are gone.
A trailer parked next to a destroyed structure in Paradise in February.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
One recent day, I eked my car up the same route so many in Paradise took to try to escape with their lives. Turning up the scarred roadway, the first thing you notice as they trickle into your line of sight are the billboards: advertisements for lawyers and insurance companies alongside others for churches and nonprofits, each exclaiming an abiding love for Paradise and its surrounding communities — all using the hashtag #ridgestrong.
At first, it seemed like a way to show solidarity or self identify as a fire survivor; recently its felt more like it’s being used, in the way financial interests always co-opt movements.
But more beautiful contradictions abound too. This April, wildflowers have fiercely reclaimed the hillsides, the roadsides of the Skyway connecting the neighboring towns, and their surviving garden beds. Gold and amethyst stain the canyons, blooming over the land’s burn scars, rising up in the spaces between the debris.
“Nature loves fire at least,” I think, considering the calls for forest management to separate the wild-urban interface we’ve meshed with controlled burns. Even here, among ruins, it is hard to want.
Back in Chico, the symptoms of population swell are evident — grocery aisles and roads always a bit more crowded than expected. Although many of the displaced thousands have left to start anew, recent faces have kindly become familiar ones.
RVs dot the driveways of residential streets — and cluster in parking lots alongside cars, some with scorched paint or belongings piled up to the windows. Hotels are fully occupied with families waiting for more permanent housing. Those without insurance or assistance live precariously close to homelessness. With little sustainable shelter and few eligible FEMA sites available, fire survivors and their strained supporters are waiting for more viable options in the meantime. But the meantime has no discernible end.
“That’s one of the hardest things, the lack of certainty,” Jori Krulder, a Paradise High School teacher and fire survivor, tells me. “We don’t know what school is going to look like. We don’t know how many kids are going to come back.” The school’s temporary location — a former Facebook building facing the Chico Airport, playfully nicknamed “Paradise Airlines” — is papered inside with hand-painted signs conveying earnest encouragement (“We are family!”), beside information for the upcoming prom.
Mrs. Krulder proudly shows me the wall-sized poster of all the students who’ve received acceptances to colleges, the generous piles of donated books, the mountain of snacks the principal restocks every week for the teachers and staff. The day before, the principal had announced he’d be leaving the area to take a position in central California, after living these past months of transition in an apartment with his wife and seven kids.
Other than the surreal presence of airplanes across the way, the throng of students crowding the front of the building at the end of the school day looks deceptively like any other high school at 3:30 in the afternoon — boys tussling, backpacks tossed down every which way and a couple kissing just a ways off.
“The fact that these kids show up every day and actually try to do school is just incredible,” Mrs. Krulder says, “They are so resilient.” An orchestrated succession of buses loads them up and delivers them into Chico, Magalia and beyond where they will join up with their families in hotel rooms, RVs, tents, or their old homes if they’re lucky. In the homes of friends or kind strangers, if they’re fortunate in another way.
Resilience doesn’t occur in a vacuum. When all the rest is in flux, it finds itself embedded in the generosity of nonprofits, churches, social media groups and survivors’ proximity to familial and emotional support. And yet it’s still connected directly to financial resources — and not just that of your neighbors but of your neighboring government and the national government’s willingness to chip in.
Imagine your own community and how each member would fare, from the very stable to the most vulnerable, if in a single day everything burned to the ground. And if you lived in the town nearest by, where tens of thousands fled for protection, how far would your arms spread to shelter them?
Spring’s ease has come with a bittersweet taste this time around. The heat of fire season is far from no one’s mind. Much of Butte County remains in one of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s “very high fire hazard severity zones.” Officials talk of plans for fire season in the timbre of a militarization.
Last month, a local chapter of a climate advocacy group drafted a climate emergency declaration and the Chico City Council has co-declared one too. In six months, when the official one year anniversary of the Camp Fire comes and there are — inevitably — a profusion of essays and videos about Paradise and Butte published, we can only hope they won’t be obligatory, or ignorant of the urgent help still needed.
We can only hope we’re not forgotten, as climate-driven catastrophe newly puts other small towns in national headlines. Perhaps we’ll be a beacon for wherever future suffering arrives. A place to see how resilience isn’t abstract saccharine, it’s possible; that common cause can still be fostered between strangers, that our capacity for goodness is unknown until it’s tested by fire.
Sarah Pape is a professor of English at California State University, Chico, and managing editor of the Watershed Review. She is a lifelong resident of Butte County.
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