Fighting ‘invisible fire’: Why Paradise is ready for coronavirus.

Why We Wrote This

They lost their town to fire. Now, the residents of Paradise, California, are drawing on communal strength born of adversity to meet the pandemic with determined optimism.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A sign at the entrance of Paradise, California, on March 13, 2020.

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After wildfire burned their town in 2018, the people of Paradise, California, were determined to rebuild.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic threatens its fragile progress. Facing another calamity so soon after the Camp fire, residents and local officials share concern over the ordeals ahead and yet trust they will persevere – a communal resolve born of collective adversity.

“At first you think, ‘We just went through one disaster, and now this?’” says Jody Jones, a member of the town council who was mayor when the inferno struck. She and her husband lost their home to the flames. “At the same time, this community has drawn a lot of strength from what we went through, and that will help us get through this.”

Between the two crises, Pat Zinn, a retired bank manager whose house survived the blaze, considers the coronavirus far less ominous.

Ms. Zinn always keeps small stockpiles of toilet paper, cleaning solvents, and canned food on hand. Her habitual readiness derives, in part, from childhood memories of rationing during World War II. Her calmness about the coronavirus arises, in part, from living through the polio epidemic while growing up in Southern California.

“People my age, we’ve been through life. We know it has ups and downs,” she says.

The concrete foundation rising from the dirt lot along Sunburst Drive will support a three-bedroom house that Jada and Grant Keeter will call home one day. Until a month ago, the couple thought that day would arrive by Christmas. Then California’s governor imposed a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and now they wonder if their timeline might be as fanciful as Santa Claus.

“We’re still aiming for Christmas, but it’s a little hard to know if there will be any delays,” Ms. Keeter says. She stood beside the gravel drive leading into the property as her husband inspected the foundation walls. “We’re hoping for the best.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Their determined optimism reflects a common sentiment in the Northern California town of Paradise, where the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history swept through on Nov. 8, 2018. The blaze killed 85 people, destroyed some 14,000 homes, and forced the evacuation of Paradise’s 27,000 residents, along with another 23,000 from nearby communities.

Seventeen months later, as the town struggles to rebuild and its population hovers around 3,000, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens Paradise’s fragile progress. Facing another calamity so soon after the Camp fire, residents and local officials share concern over the ordeals ahead and yet trust they will persevere – a communal resolve born of collective adversity.

“At first you think, ‘We just went through one disaster, and now this?’” says Jody Jones, a member of the town council who was mayor when the inferno struck. She and her husband lost their home to the flames. “At the same time, this community has drawn a lot of strength from what we went through, and that will help us get through this.”

The lockdown decree that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced March 19 has led to most of the state’s businesses closing and schools shifting classes online. In Paradise, the pausing of public life has clouded the future for dozens of the more than 200 businesses that have opened since the wildfire. The school district, with half as many students as before the blaze, has seen its academic year upended once again.

Under the statewide order, construction remains an “essential” service, enabling home builders to continue working. For the Keeters, whose house burned down, the good news is tempered by the potential for lags in the supply chain of construction materials.

“There are a lot of questions about everything right now,” Ms. Keeter says, “and we’re all waiting to see what the answers will be.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
A sign announces the cancellation of a Paradise High School event on March 13, 2020, in Paradise, California. The high school opened its doors in the fall of 2019 after Paradise was largely destroyed in the Camp Fire. Paradise High School recently had to close again due to the threat of the coronavirus.

“The invisible fire”

Paradise’s recovery gained momentum in January with the opening of the Building Resiliency Center in a vacant bank branch. The center serves as a one-stop shop for residents to obtain building permits, housing assistance, and planning guidance to accelerate home construction.

The pandemic has slowed the center’s work as town officials, mindful of social distancing guidelines, have reduced staff and restricted visits to scheduled appointments. Fewer than 90 new houses have gone up in the past year, and even as the whir of circular saws and the report of nail guns attest to ongoing construction, the pace has dropped.

“We can’t let the rebuilding stop,” says Eric Reinbold, Paradise’s police chief. He and his wife and their three children moved to a town 15 miles away after the fire destroyed their home. “But everything has been affected to one degree or another, and the big thing is, we don’t know how long it will last.”

Health officials have recorded 16 cases of the coronavirus in Butte County as of Monday morning; none have occurred in Paradise. Damage from the wildfire closed the lone full-service hospital in town, and while an immediate care clinic that opened last month has conducted tests for COVID-19, the relative lack of medical services adds to the anxiety of residents.

“This is like the invisible fire,” says Eddie DeAnda, an outreach worker with a disaster crisis counseling program who lives in Paradise. “It’s been a stressful time. Just going to the grocery store kind of puts people on edge.”

The outbreak has hampered the town’s efforts to mend its social fabric. Municipal officials, who shut down the town hall, have canceled or postponed annual community festivals. Paradise High School’s graduation ceremony, scheduled for June, could involve seniors receiving diplomas by appointment rather than in a group celebration.

The school district welcomed back about 1,600 of its 3,300 students in August. Last month, three days before the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect, administrators closed classrooms and teachers switched to online instruction.

The high school opens each weekday morning to allow students to pick up laptops and wireless hotspots. But the disruption of a second straight school year has deepened the hardship for students, as many families displaced by the fire still live in trailers or other temporary housing outside Paradise.

“Our emotional reserves were already a little lower than everybody else’s,” says Tom Taylor, the district superintendent. He has told teachers to modify their expectations of students. “We can’t push too hard. We just have to accept they won’t learn at the same level.”

The high school’s graduation ceremony last June, seven months after the Camp fire, provided a unifying moment for students and residents alike. Mike Ervin, the school’s principal, worries that the class of 2020 – including his youngest son – could miss out on a cherished rite of passage.

Imagining his son walking toward him on the commencement stage, Mr. Ervin says, “I was really looking forward to giving my kid a hug.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
High school principal Mike Ervin stands outside his office at the end of the school day on March 13, 2020, in Paradise, California. The high school opened its doors in the fall of 2019 after Paradise was largely destroyed in the Camp Fire.

“We keep on going”

Gun sales have increased at Fins, Fur, and Feather Sports in the weeks since Paradise’s residents began living almost entirely indoors. Shop owner Chris Main offers a wry explanation for the rush.

“People are buying firearms and ammunition to guard their toilet paper,” he says. The Camp fire spared his home, and though concerned about the impact of the pandemic on his suppliers, the Paradise native has resolute faith in the town’s resilience. “We’ve been through a lot, but we keep on going, keep on surviving.”

The fallout from the lockdown order on restaurants, cafes, and other businesses will emerge in the coming weeks and months. As Ms. Jones, the former mayor, frets about the local economy, she finds reason for hope in the nearly 700 building permits the town has issued for home construction since the fire.

“The coronavirus has left all of us feeling a little in limbo,” she says. The uncertainty extends to the completion date of the new house that she and her husband are building. “But if we can keep construction going, then we can weather this challenge, too.”

In the fire’s aftermath, 10 of the 21 officers on the town’s police force departed, pursuing new jobs and a fresh start. Now guiding the department through a different sort of adversity, Mr. Reinbold relies on lessons learned from that earlier disaster, urging his officers to remain visible to reassure isolated residents.

“This isn’t as traumatic as the fire, when we lost much of our community in a matter of hours,” says Mr. Reinbold, who has hired three officers in recent months. “But people are scared thinking about where we could end up, so you want to show them we’re here and they’re not alone.”

Broken power lines owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. ignited the Camp fire, and last month, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The news elicited a muted reaction even in California as the pandemic dominates headlines and public attention.

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Pat Zinn, a retired bank manager, stands in front of her home in Paradise, California, on March 27, 2020. Her house survived a wildfire that wiped out most of the town in November 2018. Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, she says, "This is nothing compared to the fire."

Between the two crises, Pat Zinn, a retired bank manager whose house survived the blaze, considers the coronavirus far less ominous. “This is nothing compared to the fire,” she says.

Ms. Zinn always keeps small stockpiles of toilet paper, cleaning solvents, and canned food on hand. Her habitual readiness derives, in part, from childhood memories of rationing during World War II. Her calmness about the coronavirus arises, in part, from living through the polio epidemic while growing up in Southern California.

“People my age, we’ve been through life. We know it has ups and downs,” she says. Still, she adds with a smile, “I’m glad I’m not in New York.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Reporters on the Job
Monitor correspondent Martin Kuz gives the inside scoop

I’ve made a handful of trips to Paradise in the 18 months since California’s worst wildfire gutted the town, which is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Returning a few weeks ago, I noticed a change: For-sale signs had sprouted on hundreds of the empty lots where homes once stood.

My initial reaction was a sense of erasure. The signs offered hard evidence that a prevailing assumption since the day of the inferno – that most residents would rebuild their lives elsewhere – had proved true. The past would remain forever irretrievable.

The hours passed, and as I drove through the barren neighborhoods, my perspective began to broaden. I saw that for Paradise to exist as something more than a void – a memorial to all that has been lost – a new generation of residents will need to put down roots here.

Their arrival in the months and years ahead will neither elide the recent tragedy from memory nor shield the town against future calamity, whether fire, flooding, or pandemic. But their presence will nurture a renewal as Paradise rises from the scarred earth, healing in its own time – a town, once bereft, finding its way toward possibility.

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