Shepherds in uniform: Meet the cops ensuring that Paradise is not lost

Why We Wrote This

One year after the deadly Camp fire threatened to wipe Paradise, California, off the map, the town’s police chief is helping to restore the bonds of the community.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Mike Greer wipes his eyes during the 85 seconds of silence honoring the 85 people who died in last year's Camp Fire during ceremonies in Paradise, California, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

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Eric Reinbold had just 51 days to settle into the role of police chief of Paradise, California, before the town ceased to exist. The Camp fire claimed the lives of 85 people, destroyed more than 14,000 homes, and forced the town’s 27,000 residents to flee. The blaze incinerated 90% of the housing stock, more than 500 businesses, and the unseen bonds of community.

Recovering from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history presented an existential crisis for Mr. Reinbold and his department. How do you patrol a town that is no longer there?

Following the disaster, the role of his officers shifted from typical law enforcers to something akin to shepherds in uniform. They tended to shell-shocked residents returning to a town as ravaged as their emotions.

“There’s a bigger emphasis on making deeper connections with people,” Mr. Reinbold says. He instructs his officers to patrol Paradise in a manner that could be dubbed stop-and-chat as they drive through nearly deserted neighborhoods.

“The bonds are being strengthened because they know they’re not going through this alone,” he says. “I feel like the future does look brighter.”

Eric Reinbold’s rise through the ranks of the Paradise Police Department peaked on September 17 last year. During a brief swearing-in ceremony, he became police chief of his Northern California hometown, 11 years after joining the force as a cadet. The native son had climbed a career summit in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas.

The next 51 days brought little out of the ordinary as he settled into the job. On Day 52, the town he had known his entire life ceased to exist. 

A wildfire ignited outside Paradise early on November 8, and within hours, a day that had dawned bright and blue turned black with smoke and ash and anguish. The inferno claimed the lives of 85 people, destroyed more than 14,000 homes, and forced the town’s 27,000 residents to flee, along with another 23,000 who lived in nearby communities.

Recovering from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history presented an existential crisis for Mr. Reinbold and his department. How do you patrol a town that is no longer there? 

“It was overwhelming,” he says, sitting in his office three days before the one-year anniversary of the blaze. The flames spared the police station but torched his home and those of several of his officers. “It’s one thing to lose a portion of your town. But when you lose basically the whole thing – the houses, the businesses, the hospital, most of the schools – there isn’t anything quite like that.” 

The story of his efforts to hold together the department parallels the larger narrative of Paradise’s struggle to reclaim itself. The Camp fire at once gutted the town’s landscape and its daily routines, and as Mr. Reinbold and his officers attempted to restore a semblance of order, the fallout engulfed them.

The police force represented one of the few aspects of Paradise that remained intact after the fire – at least for a time. In the ensuing weeks and months, 10 of its 21 officers departed, lured away by other jobs and the chance to leave behind their own sense of despair.

“They lived here, too,” Mr. Reinbold says, “and driving around and seeing the devastation day in and day out, that could be retraumatizing.”

He understood their reactions. He felt the emotional weight of the town’s sudden absence, the burden of its broken future. He realized the Paradise of his lifetime – the tight-knit idyll tucked into forested foothills – would exist only in memory.

The chief chose to stay. He wants to rebuild his depleted department on a foundation of empathy and resuscitate his hometown on the strength of belief and persistence. He resolves to move forward, gathering what he calls “little bits of hope” out of the shattered portrait of Paradise. 

“With so much in limbo, his presence has provided stability,” says Mayor Jody Jones, whose house burned down. “It’s not just a job to him. This is his home.” 

A somber anniversary

The morning of November 8 dawned bright and blue again this fall in Paradise. Almost nothing else that came after resembled the same day a year ago.

Last November, as ash rained from a darkening sky, the town emptied out in harrowing slow-motion, its four main roadways clogged with traffic as residents sought to escape.

Wind-swept flames devoured home after home, store after store. Pine trees and utility poles exploded like giant Roman candles amid booming detonations of propane tanks and abandoned cars. Sparked by broken power lines owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the Camp fire incinerated 90% of the housing stock, more than 500 businesses, and the unseen bonds of community. 

Two weeks ago, under a resplendent sun, Paradise filled back up. Thousands of displaced residents returned for a day of events to commemorate all they had lost. 

Noah Berger/AP/File
A vintage car among debris after the Camp fire tears through Paradise, California, November 8, 2018. California officials said November 19, 2019, that crews have finished removing millions of tons of debris left by the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

Most entered along Skyway Road, the town’s primary thoroughfare, where 85 American flags swayed in the breeze, one for each person who died in the fire. Old friends and onetime neighbors hugged, cried, and reminisced. City officials delivered speeches that blended somber homages to the victims and the hardships of survivors with spirited assurances that Paradise will rise again.

The surge of visitors created the illusion of a town that had already recovered. In reality, an estimated 3,000 people live here – barely one-tenth of its pre-fire population – and fewer than 20 new houses have gone up in the past year. Former residents list various deterrents to rebuilding, including battles with home insurers, California’s high construction costs, the town’s tainted water supply – and fears of another inferno.

“I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away,” says Megan Rawie, who had lived with her husband in Paradise for 19 years when the blaze reduced their house to rubble. The couple moved to a town an hour’s drive north and remain unsure about whether to keep or sell their vacant lot. “There’s always the thought that this could happen again.”

The gathering of Paradise’s refugees laid bare their enduring privations. The Camp fire cost Amy McFarland her nursing job and razed the home she shared with her husband and two children. They now occupy the cramped confines of a mobile trailer parked on family property 30 miles away.

“There’s still such a strong feeling of loss,” Ms. McFarland says. She paused to wipe away the tears behind her sunglasses. “Everything is just gone.”

Making deeper connections 

The distress of residents after the Camp fire reached as far as the police chief. Mr. Reinbold’s public stature provided thin armor against personal adversity.

The toll went beyond the home where he lived with his wife and three children. His in-laws’ house burned to the ground; they since have moved to Idaho. A cousin lost his place. Familiar family landmarks – his childhood home, his father’s old auto repair shop, his late grandmother’s house – wound up as piles of ash and gnarled metal.

“It feels,” Mr. Reinbold says, “like even your memories are stripped from you.”

The town’s collective vulnerability guides the policing strategy he has nurtured since the disaster. Isolation ranks as perhaps the greatest source of anxiety for residents scattered across the fire-scarred mountain ridge. So he instructs his officers to patrol Paradise in a manner that could be dubbed stop-and-chat as they drive through nearly deserted neighborhoods.

“There’s a bigger emphasis on making deeper connections with people,” Mr. Reinbold says. “Because when you talk to them, the thing you hear most often is, ‘I’m the only house left on my street. What can you do to help me feel safe?’” 

The sharp drop in crime following the Camp fire altered the role of his officers from typical law enforcers to something akin to shepherds in uniform. They tended to shell-shocked residents returning to a town as ravaged as their emotions.

If those duties proved too sedate for a handful of cops – “some decided this new normal just isn’t for them,” Mr. Reinbold says – others embraced the change. Perry Walters, who joined the force four years ago, realizes he might be the sole person a resident encounters on a given day.

“You’re showing compassion because people are struggling,” he says, easing his police SUV down a pitted road on the town’s east side. A year after the fire, most lots stand barren, the debris and dead trees hauled away by cleanup crews. “They’re going through something unlike anything most of them have gone through before.”

He notices a silver-haired woman standing outside the street’s lone house and opens his passenger window to greet her. He spends 10 minutes talking with Pat Zinn, a retired bank manager, whose ranch-style home survived unscathed. They discuss the day of the fire, a neighbor who died after refusing to evacuate, and her concerns about scavengers and thieves. 

“I’m the last one here – it’s kind of lonely,” she says. Mr. Walters nods and tells her that officers will try to devote more attention to her area. He hands her a business card.

“Call us anytime,” he says. “We always want to make sure you’re safe.” 

Stages of healing

Mr. Reinbold served as acting police chief for seven months last year after Paradise’s top cop retired in February. Town officials conducted a wide search for a successor before appointing him to the position in the fall. The calamity that arrived 52 days later revealed an unexpected benefit to choosing a native son. 

“If he had come here from somewhere else, he might’ve decided not to stick around,” says Lt. Anthony Borgman, a member of the department since 2016. “With all that chaos, it helped that he was somebody people could count on being here.”

Mr. Reinbold and his officers witnessed Paradise’s almost total obliteration as they worked to evacuate residents. The baptism by wildfire gave him insight into his own and his hometown’s capacity to bear misfortune. He suggests that communal ties will deepen as more people return and move through the stages of healing from a shared ordeal.

“The bonds are being strengthened because they know they’re not going through this alone,” he says. For the sake of stability and their kids, he and his wife bought a house this spring in Chico, a college town 15 miles away, but he continues to devote most of each day to Paradise. “I feel like the future does look brighter.” 

Evidence of slow progress has emerged even as questions persist about rebuilding in a fire-prone region. Stop lights and street signs have reappeared. The town has issued 300 building permits and some 200 businesses have reopened, ranging from grocery stores and restaurants to auto shops and beauty salons. The police department will add three cadets by early next year, and town officials authorized Mr. Reinbold to offer a $20,000 hiring bonus to recruit veteran cops.

He plans to boost his force from 11 to 17 officers to shoulder the dual roles of empathy patrol and law enforcement. A rise in crime since summer – the work of car thieves, burglars, property squatters – offers another, less desirable sign of gradual recovery. “It’s funny because people say, ‘Oh, it must just be dead in Paradise,’” he says. “Well, no.” 

Mr. Walters has found himself responding to more emergency calls in recent months. He crisscrosses town in his SUV, passing over shallow abrasions in the roads where abandoned cars melted as Paradise burned. 

A year ago, in the confusion and panic of a mass exodus, he aided some 250 people when traffic ground to a stop. He told them to leave their vehicles and follow him to a strip mall parking lot where the pavement would act as a buffer against the fire. They watched the orange flames approach in the smoke-choked darkness. Tense hours passed. The danger receded. 

“That day changed me. It made me feel more loyal to the community,” Mr. Walters says. As Paradise tries to mend, he waits for residents to return. “I definitely want to be here for them. I want to help them come back home.”

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