A Year After Paradise Burned, What Comes Next Is Still a Mystery

PARADISE, Calif. — Paradise is a town of negative space, a looking glass projecting what was and what will be.

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A year ago this week, the Camp Fire reduced the majority of the town to rubble in a few short hours. It spurred the greatest debris cleanup in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s still going on today, contractor pickups plastered with various acronyms prowling the town; crews still restoring power and cable, ensuring there’s clean water, hauling debris, and otherwise trying to lay the foundation for a future Paradise that may bear little resemblance to the one that vanished a year ago.

Paradise is a microcosm of the wider West. The landscape has become more flammable due to climate change and human development, and now we bear the burden of the consequences. For other towns, for millions of people, it’s meant rolling blackouts to stave off power grid-sparked fires. And for California’s government, it’s meant turning to prison labor to battle increasingly intense blazes. These are on-the-fly experiments for living in a present no longer at equilibrium with the past or future as the climate crisis worsens. Paradise, though, is perhaps the biggest experiment in what a community can look like against this shifting baseline.

Lots graded at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park.
Lots graded at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

There are still people living here. Food trucks have sprung up where restaurants stood, and some stores like the CVS are open downtown. (If you grab a burrito at the temporary taco truck next door, you can even use their restroom). Yet just 10 percent of Paradise’s residents have returned in the wake of the fire, largely due to the fact that there’s simply nowhere to live.

It is this void of civilization that creates the feeling of negative space. Paradise isn’t a ghost town akin to the bygone Wild West or Chernobyl. There are still people here, to be sure. But there’s an odd feeling of abandonment that’s hard to shake when staring across an empty baseball diamond, a few singed trees marking the outfield where the fire blazed through town. Or when looking at entire neighborhoods scraped down to the soil, bisected by an arrow-straight road. There are also hundreds of flame-scarred trees marked for final destruction, enrobed in flagging tape, waiting to be cut down and hauled away.

The baseball diamond near Ponderosa Elementary School. Scorched trees show where the Camp Fire hopped through the outfield.
The baseball diamond near Ponderosa Elementary School. Scorched trees show where the Camp Fire hopped through the outfield.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

Quiet memories still dot the landscape, statues, crosses, signs. Their exact meaning is unknowable to an outsider beyond the fact that they simply survived the most destructive fire in California’s history. But to the people that may someday return to Paradise, they contain multitudes.

“Reflections of Serenity” mural by Shame Grammer, an artist who spray painted murals around Paradise to honor survivors and victims of the Camp Fire.
“Reflections of Serenity” mural by Shame Grammer, an artist who spray painted murals around Paradise to honor survivors and victims of the Camp Fire.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
A Virgin Mary statue sits in front of a graded lot and burned forest.
A Virgin Mary statue sits in front of a graded lot and burned forest.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Crosses dot the highway leading into Paradise from Chico as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Camp Fire.
Crosses dot the highway leading into Paradise from Chico as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Camp Fire.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
A tree marked for removal along with mailbox and former sign nailed to it.
A tree marked for removal along with mailbox and former sign nailed to it.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
A wall of pets found in the wake of the fire stuck to the side of Ponderosa Elementary School. The school remains closed due to damage from the Camp Fire.
A wall of pets found in the wake of the fire stuck to the side of Ponderosa Elementary School. The school remains closed due to damage from the Camp Fire.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
A burned out car still sits at a gas station.
A burned out car still sits at a gas station.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Kristina Peregoy is one of the thousands of residents still cleaning up Camp Fire.
Kristina Peregoy is one of the thousands of residents still cleaning up Camp Fire.
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

rvincent1960
Times up, time to leave!

As an Aussie my heart really goes out to the people of Paradise. We deal with fire season every year and I guess most of us know someone who has died or lost a home in a major fire here.

One factor I am curious about with regards to people not returning to the town is the visual impact of the condition of the surrounding forest. Here most forest (or bush) is predominantly eucalypt based which is basically a fire hardy species and recovers very quickly. Usually within 3 months things start greening up and a year later it begins to look its former self. From what I understand coniferous forest does not respond to fire like that.

What strikes me in the photos is how bare the forest still looks even a year on, its a stark reminder of what happened. The weedy looking regrowth almost seems to emphasize the state of the town. I know I would find it tough to return and rebuild with that desolate landscape surrounding.

I guess its also a harsh reminder that this kind of event is not natural for these forests, this is not part of their ecology. The Australian bush is for the most part a fire based ecology, indeed many species require fire to germinate their seeds. We chose to live in the bush because of its beauty and accepted the inevitable risk that one day fire will come and so we prepare and stay vigilant. Climate change has upended the rules, fire in these Californian forests should be a rare and unusual thing but now it seems that is no longer the case.