PARADISE, Calif. — In October, hundreds more Californians joined the ranks of those who’ve lost homes and businesses to wildfire as hurricane-force winds blew flames through the vineyards of Sonoma County and the chaparral on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The news media told a story of grief and destruction. The coverage was dramatic enough that some have started questioning why people are living in California at all.
A year ago, it was Paradise in the spotlight. On Nov. 8, 2018, fierce winds blew a spark from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment into bone-dry trees, then pretty wooden homes throughout Paradise and other remote communities in Butte County. The resulting Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, burning nearly 14,000 homes and killing 85 people.
Last month, with the year anniversary approaching, a group of volunteers met in Paradise Community Park on a warm fall day and put on “Love Paradise” T-shirts and work gloves to pick up pine needles, leaves, branches and trash from the town’s streets. Television crews and journalists were arriving again to document the aftermath of the fire, and residents wanted them to see a clean town.
Joelle Chinnock, who organized the trash pickup with Love Paradise, a local organization, fled the fierce flames a year ago. Her home survived almost intact, and she was able to move back one month later. Her kids, whose friends were scattered all over the state, found some normalcy in the park.
Helping each other heal
Some days, Chinnock thinks life would have been easier had her home burned down and given her a fresh start, with a good insurance payout and time away from the toxic remnants of her town. Other times, she thinks she’s lucky she didn’t lose everything, like some of her friends. She feels an obligation to help. Many do. They have stepped up.
“Sometimes I don’t know what we’re doing but we get up and run, and we keep running,” Chinnock said. “In the process, we’re helped and we’re healed, and we find more strength to do more and help others heal.”
The story of the solidarity that sustains a community during recovery is not as widespread as the story of the drama of the disaster itself. As a local reporter for the Chico Enterprise-Record, the daily newspaper in Butte County, I see that community spirit every day.
A year after the Camp Fire, the tens of thousands of people who evacuated, many of whom lost their homes, are in very different places on the path of recovery. There are unexpected hurdles in the burn scar, like persistent toxic contamination in parts of the water system and blackouts. Now, trailers dot clean dirt lots. So does new construction: 19 homes have been rebuilt and more than 430 permitted. Some 200 businesses have reopened.
There’s also been an outpouring of volunteering and community engagement at events like the trash pickup. Celebrations like an annual parade in honor of the area’s Gold Rush history or a series of concerts in the park are bringing out large audiences. Thousands pack the high school football stadium to cheer for the Paradise High School’s Bobcats on Friday nights. Town council meetings on a long-term rebuilding vision overflow with participants. New neighborhood captains distribute information and organize block parties on near-empty streets. Residents of nearby Magalia, which partly burned, are rallying around an idea for a park. In Concow, another remote community in Butte County, neighbors share a sawmill to create their own lumber from burned trees. Some of them are rebuilding after a wildfire for the second time in just over a decade.
Learning to survive repeat disasters
Wildfire, after all, has always been a part of California. The landscapes are adapted to regular fires, and indigenous people have long used fire as a tool to manage forests. A few factors have turned recent wildfires into catastrophes: Forests and electric utility equipment are mismanaged, climate change is turning the state into a tinderbox, and millions of people are increasingly living in areas at risk for wildfire.
A lot of these threat amplifiers can be mitigated. But fires will continue to happen. That makes a collective ability and will to not only survive, but to thrive, through repeat disasters — like what I’ve seen emerge from community events in Butte County — all the more relevant.
The winds following Paradise’s trash pickup day since have knocked down burnt trees and blown debris back all over the streets. I asked Chinnock whether it had been a futile effort. She sighed. “No,” she said. At least some of the trash had been removed. The kids got to play in the bounce house. Neighbors got to see each other.
“We all have been through the most horrific thing in our lives, so you instantly have a bond, and I’ve never been in a place where I’ve felt that before,” Chinnock said.
Camille von Kaenel is a Report for America corps member, covering wildfire recovery for the Chico Enterprise-Record & The Ukiah Daily Journal. This essay is part of series called “On the Ground,” supported by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @cvonka
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deadly Camp Fire anniversary: Paradise residents rekindle community