Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
A sign at the entrance of Paradise, California, on March 13, 2020.

After a megafire, what Paradise found

The California town, largely burned in 2018 by the state’s worst fire, is teaching others in the West how to respond to the region’s record fires.

The residents of Paradise are on the run again this week. The California town became well known in 2018 after a wildfire killed at least 85 people, displaced more than 50,000 people, and destroyed 95% of local structures. Now many in the mountain town, which has been partially rebuilt, are fleeing during the state’s severest wildfire season on record. More than 2.5 million acres have been burned across the state. Other parts of the West are also on fire.

Paradise, of course, is more prepared this time in material ways, such as better fire-resistant houses and reconfigured streets. Yet its spirit of resiliency and community bonds are also on display. “I feel a calm resolve, like, I’m not going to let this fire win,” Lauren Gill, the outgoing town manager, told a local reporter.

The town’s tragedy on Nov. 8, 2018 – the deadliest fire in California’s history – turned out to be an opportunity for Paradise to forge lessons far beyond those of better fire prevention and the need to live outside fire-prone areas. One example: “Serving people who lost everything has been healing for me too,” one resident told the Monitor last year.

Drawing the right lessons from a disaster is not always easy. The default is to look for something or someone to blame – climate change, zoning laws, or sparks from an electric utility’s equipment. Fixing such issues is critical, but just as critical are shifts in thought, such as learning to be calm as the flames approach and being alert to the needs of neighbors.

Being open to finding the right lessons is the first step. When two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard decided to make a documentary on Paradise in 2018, his company at first sought to turn the town’s devastation into a warning.

“When we started this movie, it really was a climate change movie,” Justin Wilkes, president of Imagine Documentaries, told the Los Angeles Times. “Over the course of that first year, it went from being ‘This is a climate story’ to ‘Wow, this is really a story of humanity and community.’” Mr. Howard said the Paradise story is a case study for “what survival looks like, and the possibilities for real healing.”

“The passion and commitment of the people of Paradise, to one another and to rebuilding their community, is a reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” he said.

The film, “Rebuilding Paradise,” was purposely released by National Geographic in July to help the U.S. deal with another disaster – the COVID-19 pandemic. Now as major wildfires burn in California, Oregon, and Washington state, the film – and its newfound message – is applicable to fire-struck communities in those states. And the people of Paradise are probably still as open as anyone to the opportunity to grow in the face of trauma. Calm before a firestorm helps bring calm after a firestorm.

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