On the way home from a weekend trip with friends, we took a short detour into the foothills above Chico, California. Our destination: What remains of the town of Paradise.
The evidence of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history is clear for several miles before the road winds into Paradise, nearly 14 months after the blaze tore through. Blackened shells of oak trees lie on the ground, pushed down by forestry crews but not yet removed, amid other trees that stand tall and defiant – inexplicably untouched by the inferno.
The same is true for the structures in Paradise. Driving along Skyway Road, the town’s main thoroughfare, the randomness of the Camp Fire’s destruction is perplexing and stark. The remains of a strip mall, a single storefront standing among the blackened pads of the others surrounded by an empty parking lot. A house with detached garage sits untouched at the end of a cul-de-sac; it once had eight neighbors and now has none.
As we drove deeper into Paradise, a hush fell over our vehicle. The near-utter destruction of the town took away words. My friend turned right off Skyway, into what was once a neighborhood. An RV stands where its owner’s cabin had on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. The rest of the street is deserted for miles.
I clutched my cellphone, the will to photograph what I saw gone. What would I have recorded anyway? Blackened trees and cement pads. The occasional building that was spared except for a scorch mark on its metal wall running from ground to roofline. Chain-link fence squares to keep the curious from falling into open septic tanks. Signs reminding residents to drink bottled water and remain Paradise Strong.
On Nov. 7, 2018, Paradise boasted a population of nearly 27,000. This past summer, the state of California confirmed only about 2,000 people who fled the wildfire have returned. Whether out of necessity or resignation – the blaze destroyed 95% of the town’s buildings – 90% of the people who called Paradise home before the wildfire no longer do.
There are a few signs of rebuilding. Here and there, frames of houses stand in various states of completion. A new supermarket anchors a shopping center that is otherwise vacant. A new bank with a metal roof gleams behind fireproof landscaping.
Mostly, though, Paradise is empty. Paradise was lost that unusually warm November morning when unusually strong winds fanned hell down the hillside and sent residents fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A painful, destructive and deadly end to what had already been a long and historic wildfire season in California.
But fire also brings new life. Forests are reborn by fire, which thins crowded understories and causes pinecones to pop and spray seeds onto the forest floor where future trees may – if everything goes exactly right – one day take root.
Fire changed the course of human evolution. It helped broaden what our ancestors ate, kept them warm and drove predators away. It allowed them to shape metal into tools and weapons, jewelry and coins. We flourished and exist today in no small part because of fire and our ability to control it, outside of wildland-urban interfaces anyway.
Every New Year’s Eve, each member of my family finds a private corner of the house to write two lists: one of the things we didn’t like about the old year, our disappointments and trials, and another of our hopes and dreams for the new year. The list for the new year gets tucked in a safe place until the next New Year’s Eve when it comes out, a reckoning of progress and success and sometimes failure.
The other list we tear into little pieces, which we put in a pie tin, douse with lighter fluid and light on fire in the street. It is therapeutic – even a bit triumphant – to watch the flames consume all that was painful and troubling from the old year before we dump the blackened bits of loss and failure into the street, throw a bucket of water on them and watch them float down to the storm drain and out of sight forever.
And like that, just before the old year fades and the new year dawns, the slate is wiped clean. The chance for a fresh start, to live new dreams and strive to be better, envelops us. And for a while, as we ring bells and make wishes and toast each other, hope comes alive.
Paradise is found.