Noah Berger/AP/File
The remains of homes leveled by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, California, Nov. 15, 2018. Six months later, residents are still weighing whether or not to rebuild.

In California town destroyed by fire, a search for meaning

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Last November, the deadliest wildfire in California history killed 85 people and razed almost 14,000 homes in the town of Paradise. Six months later, a sense of stunned disbelief lingers among thousands of displaced residents.

“We lost more than our home,” says Pam Fender, who lived in Paradise with her husband for 25 years. “We lost our community. We lost our way of life.”

Why We Wrote This

Paradise, California, is a portrait of what happens long after TV cameras leave following a disaster. What residents are finding is that emotional recovery, like rebuilding itself, takes care and patience.

Residents reeling from the fire’s aftermath have sought support from crisis workers, mental health therapists, clergy, and most often from each other.

“What we tell people is ‘There’s no timeline. Heal at your own pace,’” says Jake Fender, Ms. Fender’s son, who helps run a disaster crisis counseling program. “Because the truth is, nobody knows how long it’s going to take.”

The town’s gradual rebuilding poses a conundrum for residents coping with the emotional trauma wrought by the fire. Their fondness for Paradise conflicts with an awareness that the place they knew has vanished.

Margaret Kelly, who lost her home of 40 years and her job, has turned to hiking and biking to ease her mind. But doubts about the town’s future trail her.

“The world came together to help Paradise,” she says. “I just hope people don’t forget us.”

The deadliest wildfire in California history turned Jim Denison’s trailer home into a neighborhood of one. Last November, as flames devoured the town of Paradise and thousands of residents fled, he fought back with a garden hose. He doused his trailer and yard with water while houses around him burned and gray ash fell from the blackened sky.

Six months later, Mr. Denison, who moved to Paradise in 1979, passes his days by taking a chainsaw to fallen trees to supply wood for the stove that heats his trailer. He tinkers with the 1968 Chevrolet pickup truck that he saved from the fire and plucks Merle Haggard tunes on his electric guitar. He tries to forget the emptiness that surrounds him.

“There’s not much left,” says Mr. Denison, an Air Force veteran and retired landscape worker. Cleanup crews have removed the debris of destroyed homes near his property and spread dirt across the vacant lots. The brown patches of soil resemble bandages stretched across scars on the land. “The people you knew aren’t living here anymore. You miss having them around. It’s kind of lonely.”

Why We Wrote This

Paradise, California, is a portrait of what happens long after TV cameras leave following a disaster. What residents are finding is that emotional recovery, like rebuilding itself, takes care and patience.

Last fall’s Camp fire killed 85 people, razed almost 14,000 homes, and displaced more than 50,000 residents in and around Paradise. In the town of 27,000 people tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, the blaze torched hundreds of businesses, 90% of the housing stock, and the fabric of everyday life.

The fire inflicted devastation so extreme that, six months into a recovery expected to last several years, a sense of stunned disbelief lingers among residents. Thousands remain scattered across the region in temporary housing as they ponder whether to return to Paradise. They cope at once with individual adversity and the collective loss of their community, a place they cherished as much for its close-knit familiarity as for its bucolic setting.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Jim Denison stands outside his trailer home in Paradise, Calif., six months after the deadliest wildfire in state history swept through the town, killing 85 people and destroying almost 14,000 homes. Mr. Denison saved his home by dousing it with water from a garden hose.

“What can you do?” says Gail Costello, who had lived in Paradise with her husband since 2000. The couple moved 15 miles away to Chico after the fire gutted their home, and they doubt they will rebuild. “You’ll be waiting for years for the town to be put back together. And what will it be like then? You won’t have the connections you had before.”

Residents reeling from emotional trauma in the fire’s aftermath have sought support from crisis workers, mental health therapists, clergy – and, most often, from each other. California Hope, a disaster crisis counseling program in Butte County funded by the Federal Emergency and Management Agency (FEMA), has provided free group and individual services to more than 13,000 people affected by the fire.

“No one’s prepared for the scale of something like this – not even the government,” says Jake Fender, the program’s manager. The Camp fire incinerated his parents’ house in Paradise, where he and his siblings grew up.

“This is the worst thing that’s happened to almost everyone who lived here. So what we tell people is ‘There’s no timeline – heal at your own pace.’ Because the truth is, nobody knows how long it’s going to take.”

‘Every day there’s a struggle’

State authorities last week pinned the cause of the Camp fire on power lines owned and operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. For residents attempting to regain their bearings, the fire’s origin matters less than its enduring fallout.

The intense heat created a mix of gases that seeped into the town’s underground piping and contaminated its water supply, forcing thousands of residents to rely on bottled water handed out at distribution sites in the area.

One donation center that occupies a vacant church in Paradise attracts an average of 150 people a day who pick up water, clothing, cleaning supplies, and other essential items. Many also come for the compassion and solace that the staff freely dispenses.

Margie Hensley, the center’s manager, pointed to a pair of rooms in a corner of the old church set aside for residents to meet with counselors. “You give them some water, and they’ll suddenly open up about what they’re going through,” she says. “A lot of it is about listening. You just try to be present in their emotions.”

Jenny Ryan stopped by the center on a recent afternoon to look for clothes for her fourth-grade daughter. In one blow, the fire claimed their house and the livelihood that Ms. Ryan earned by selling collectible baseball cards on eBay that had belonged to her late father.

“Every day there’s a struggle, there’s drama,” she says. Her house stood within walking distance of her daughter’s school in Paradise; now they live in an RV a half-hour drive away. Echoing the frustration of other residents, she has battled FEMA over obtaining temporary housing and her insurance company over the payout for her home.

The conversations with staffers at the center offer Ms. Ryan a respite from the spin cycle of her despair and anxiety. “Just being able to tell somebody about your situation at the moment can make such a huge difference,” she says. “It lets you get outside your head for a minute.”

In the first months after the fire, Eddie DeAnda, a crisis outreach worker with California Hope who assists residents at the distribution center, traveled to emergency shelters to aid survivors. He first encountered Mr. Denison at one and found a man lost within himself.

After fire officials lifted the evacuation order for Paradise, Mr. Denison visited his home. A notice posted on the door listed repairs required by the county as a condition of living there. He lacked the $4,000 that the work would cost, and as days gave way to weeks at the shelter, he grew despondent. He felt marooned.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Camp fire survivor Zachary Byrd poses where his home was located before it was destroyed by last year's wildfire, in Paradise, Calif. April 22.

Mr. DeAnda contacted public agencies and nonprofit groups that helped reconnect Mr. Denison’s home to the water system, obtained a generator for him, and replaced the trailer’s shattered windows. Moving home restored his sense of self-reliance even as he came back to a neighborhood scorched and deserted.

“I was getting kind of hopeless there in the shelter,” he says. “At least here I have more to do. I have more control over my life again.”

Mr. Denison’s return home proved almost as heartening for Mr. DeAnda, whose relief that the fire spared his own house is shot through with grief over the sweeping destruction of the community.

“Serving people who lost everything has been healing for me too,” he says. “It gives you the feeling that you’re doing something. You’re not just thinking or wishing you could help. You’re doing it.”

‘That electric-jangling feeling’

The pre-wildfire version of Paradise still exists in street view images on Google Maps. The photos show homes, schools, and businesses – dentist offices, motels, bars, McDonald’s – in unburned form. The town appears whole.

In the dystopian present, Paradise lies in ruins. Yet as work crews continue to haul away piles of rubble, charred vehicles, and trees the color of coal, the tableau reveals evidence of resilience.

Here and there, businesses are reopening, houses are rising. Children scamper around a school playground and climb a jungle gym. A church group has posted yard signs along roads that carry messages of encouragement: “Stay Strong,” “We’re In This Together,” “You Are Loved!”

The slow and uneven emotional recovery of fire survivors, meanwhile, occurs out of view. The demand for mental health services in Butte County has overwhelmed the capacity of clinicians, as residents face a wait of four to eight weeks for an appointment.

“The reality is the need for help is greater than the supply of providers,” says Luke Buyert, the lead pastor at Lifespring Church in Chico. He has joined with several other pastors across the county to form a Camp fire “response team” to fortify the efforts of nonprofit and community groups that offer emotional support services. “You just try to meet people and listen to them and give them a chance to sort through what they’re feeling.”

The Camp fire destroyed or damaged eight of the nine schools in Paradise, and an estimated 3,800 of the area’s 4,200 students lost their homes. District officials found space for students in schools elsewhere in the county, and in neighboring Concow, administrators reopened an abandoned school to provide classrooms for about 100 elementary and middle-school students.

The fire leveled the house of Melanie Quave, the school’s assistant principal, who describes working with students as a vital part of her own healing process.

“The kids help you in the sense that there’s a reason not to be sad and there’s a reason to work harder,” she says. “You feel this sense of ‘I got to do more because of the kiddos.’ Your mind isn’t on yourself.”

The gradual rebuilding of Paradise poses a conundrum for displaced residents coping with the emotional trauma wrought by the fire. Their fondness for the town and its people conflicts with an awareness that the place they knew has vanished.

Pam and Dean Fender, Mr. Fender’s parents, had lived in their house for 25 years when the fire ignited last fall. In the ensuing months, the retired couple have split their time between staying with friends in Chico and with their daughter in Washington. Her home overlooks Puget Sound, and the views of the water have proved a balm on their frayed nerves.

“It’s helped us get rid of that electric-jangling feeling,” Ms. Fender says. The couple has drawn strength from a large circle of friends in Chico, most of whom lost their homes in Paradise, and the shared experience has tightened their bond. They gather to play music, swap stories of problems with insurance companies, and talk about whether to return.

“Someone will say, ‘Are you going to rebuild? I’ll rebuild if you rebuild.’ But there’s more to it than that,” Ms. Fender says. “We lost more than our home. We lost our community. We lost our way of life.”

A similar uncertainty persists for Margaret and Kevin Kelly, who belong to the same group of friends and whose home of 40 years went up in flames. Ms. Kelly, who lost her job when the fire severely damaged the hospital where she worked, has turned to hiking and biking to calm her thoughts. But doubts about the town’s future trail her.

“The world came together to help Paradise,” she says, her voice choking with emotion. “I just hope people don’t forget us.”

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