Last year, the worst wildfire in California history nearly leveled a town called Paradise. Since then, residents have scattered and a lawsuit simmers. Can recovery efforts ever return a community to its old self?
Part of Issue #7 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
PARADISE, California — It was a bright, unusually hot September day on Skyway Road, and there was a distinct heaviness in the air that residents here knew all too well.
The smell, and the sight of the eerily beautiful, slightly hazy sunrise, were enough to put locals on edge, with some complaining on Facebook of an uneasiness that kept them up all night. Never mind that the smoke has a way of hanging over this town nestled between two canyons, and never mind that this particular fire, some 80 miles away, wasn’t a threat.
Nearly a year after one of the nation’s worst wildfires in a century swept through this California town, raw nerves remain.
For Erin Coyle, a 24-year-old with dark, curly hair and a dimpled smile, smoky days take her back to being 18, to the first time she experienced the ravenousness of fire, when a single-structure blaze consumed her family’s Anderson, California, home. It left Erin with burns so serious that she was airlifted to medical care.
“I was in the hospital for a week after that, getting my dead skin scrubbed off my arms. It was terrible,” she recalled.
Afterward, Erin, her mother, and her younger sister started fresh in Paradise, an enclave in the Sierra Nevada foothills that locals often refer to as the Ridge. Having missed enough classes after the house fire to require that she redo her senior year, she enrolled in Paradise High School. For Erin, this new town lived up to its name.
“I just fell in love with Paradise, to be honest,” she said, searching for the words to explain what it was about this quiet place with tree-lined streets that felt like home. “This town kind of saved me and made me feel like I was human again.” The words caught in her throat.
If you’ve heard of Paradise, it’s likely because of what happened here — thousands of people waking up to a morning sky smothered by thick, dark smoke; hiding under their cars and using storm drains as shelter from the incoming rush of heat and flames; drivers shakily recording footage of traffic that had stalled as far as they could see.
It started around 6:30 am on November 8, 2018, a so-called red flag warning day with the ideal conditions for a wildfire: whipping Diablo winds paired with heat and low humidity. The cause, the state’s fire-protection agency, Cal Fire, concluded after a six-month investigation, was a few sparks that had flown off electrical transmission lines near Pulga, California. Fueled by vegetation that was tinder-dry after years of drought, it quickly outgrew Pulga, tearing into the neighboring Butte County towns of Concow, Magalia, and Paradise.
Over the course of 17 days, the Camp Fire, named for its origin along Camp Creek Road, killed 85 people, burned more than 150,000 acres, and leveled more than 18,000 buildings — a hospital, houses, businesses, schools — making it the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California history.
Paradise took center stage in the coverage of the fire. The irony of its name, paired with photos and videos of a scorched town frosted in chemical-laden gray ash, captivated the media: “Paradise Lost,” they declared. Government, nonprofit, and fundraised aid came rushing in by the thousands. With more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for and the fire still burning miles away, President Trump visited Paradise to survey the damage. “I think, hopefully, this will be the last of these,” he announced.
It won’t be. For large swaths of the West, wildfires have always been common, rearing up for a few months each year. What has changed is that they’ve become unrelenting, stretching the fire season across the calendar; the “unprecedented” megablazes, the ones that spawn fire tornados and gut entire towns, are no longer unlikely. According to Cal Fire, more than 25 million acres and 25 percent of California’s population are considered under “very high or extreme fire threat,” magnified by climate change, dead trees, and the ever-expanding sprawl of cities into wildland areas. All together, it makes for substantially more risk: Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have ripped across the state’s desiccated landscape in the past five years.
And the Camp Fire wasn’t Paradise’s first brush with a wildfire. In 2008, the town lost 85 homes to the Humboldt Wildfire. In its wake, some insurers dropped homeowners in the county, labeling it as a high-risk area.
Still, people stayed. They reconsidered their evacuation routes and implemented a new alert system under the assumption that there probably would be a next time. But they weren’t prepared for the Camp Fire.
That realization hangs over Paradise like the smoke on that hazy September day.
For Paradise and the rest of the nation, the blaze was a wake-up call to the new, insistent danger of wildfires. In the months since, it has highlighted the ways recovery efforts designed for disasters of years past fail those affected by the climate change-heightened disasters of today. A year ago, Paradise residents pledged to rebuild; now, as the money dries up, a lawsuit gears up, and disillusionment sets in, “for sale” signs dot the streets.
The Camp Fire was fast, moving “a football field a second” at one point, survivors are quick to tell you. Life since has been a dragging process, a tedious slog involving paperwork, federal agencies, community meetings, permits, and then, inevitably, more paperwork. About 90 percent of Paradise’s population has abandoned the town, at least temporarily.
Those who remain in Paradise speak in acronyms: PID. FEMA. PG&E. They worry about water quality and air quality and what quality of life they could possibly have now. They share their fears and successes in one of the multiple Facebook support groups started days after the fire, which remain unceasingly active months later. They lose hours on the phone with their insurance providers or, lately, with lawyers, with whom they discuss joining the mounting lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility whose power lines sparked the Camp Fire that November morning.
The people of Paradise, and nearby towns of Magalia, and Concow, can sense that their stories now aren’t as captivating to outsiders as they were in the immediate aftermath of the Camp Fire. They’re bogged down in bureaucracy and frustrations no one seems to want to hear about.
As days turned to weeks and then months, the attention has shifted, as it always does, to the next Camp Fire, to this year’s historic outbreak of tornadoes and “biblical” Midwest floods, which left those communities desperately trying to understand how this happened to them. This time, it was their schools and their homes and their churches. And then one day, the cameras start leaving, but the requests for financial aid are still pending, and residents are in a long line at the only gas station open for miles, wondering, “What happens to us now?”
“Hey, maybe that’ll help”
Before the smoke, there was knocking, loud enough to wake Erin up at about 7 am that November morning. Her neighbors in the Pinecrest mobile home park had stopped by to alert her family of the approaching fire, news of which caught Erin off-guard. She followed the neighbors’ advice and raced to fill her car’s tank with gas while her mother and sister rounded up the family’s four dogs, three cats, bird, and bearded dragon. By the time Erin pulled back up to her home, she recalled, “Darkness had taken over.”
The Coyles packed up Erin’s two-door Honda Civic, throwing everything out of her trunk to make space, including the new tires she had recently purchased to replace her old, worn-down set. As they tossed them out, the family accidentally broke a water pipeline, and it sprayed water as they scrambled.
“I was like, ‘Hey, maybe that’ll help,’” she recalled thinking wryly before she left her home for the last time.
They started to drive.
“The trees to the right of me were on fire, and we were just — dead stop,” Erin said. “What was really crazy, honestly, is the lack of emergency services vehicles around me. Like, there was no one telling us what to do, anything. We were just sitting there.”
They crawled down Clark Road in traffic so thick that Erin considered off-roading, ultimately deciding against it for fear her tires would pop. The heat was insufferable, but if they opened their windows, the car would be flooded with the acrid smoke.
Elsewhere, residents posted frantic videos to social media. One of the worst scenes was Skyway Road, the town’s main artery and one of the designated evacuation routes, which was quickly overwhelmed.
Erin aimlessly honked her horn; eventually, slowly, somehow, the family made it out of immediate danger. She drove a couple hours south to El Dorado County, where her older sister lives. Erin slept on the couch, an arrangement that ended up stretching on for months.
After the fire, Paradise was off-limits to everyone except officials for weeks as they sifted through the wreckage, leaving some residents in limbo, wondering whether their homes were still standing. Like Erin, many sought refuge with nearby family and friends as they waited for news.
Joe Earley, a lawyer who fled his office on Skyway Road the morning of the fire, learned that the building where he started both his practice and his family had burned down when he saw the charred structure on TV news.
“That place — my kids grew up there. It was so deep,” he said quietly. He and his wife no longer lived there, having built their dream home a few miles away. That burned down, too.
Earley was lucky enough to find both a place to stay and a new office in an old building with stained-glass windows in neighboring Chico — lucky because it was no easy feat. About 15 minutes from Paradise, Chico and its nearly 100,000 residents escaped largely unscathed; the Camp Fire brushed past the town. It was soon home to the main command site for firefighters and a disaster recovery center where survivors could go to ask state and federal officials questions about aid, housing, and general next steps. Hundreds of displaced fire victims moved onto the town’s Silver Dollar Fairground, where the Red Cross had set up a makeshift shelter.
In December, the demand was great enough that Chico became the hottest real estate market in America. By January, the town’s population had swelled by around 20 percent, with 20,000 more people than the year before. Fueling Chico’s housing boom was an influx of Paradise residents — and money. Less than six hours into the fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized federal funds for the affected communities. Within the first five days, the agency had allocated more than $800,000 for recovery efforts of uninsured residents; and, at the state’s request, President Trump had signed a major disaster declaration, directing dollars to immediate needs, such medical care and providing fresh water.
For those who had insurance, large checks could cover new trailers or deposits on new homes. But with the surrounding housing market saturated and no clear indication of when the rebuilding process in Paradise would begin again, people who hoped to stay in the area were left confused. Some lingered in shelters, which filled to capacity as residents waited on updates about their properties, or for FEMA units that would take more than six months to open.
At least one shelter became plagued with the highly contagious norovirus; others reported incidents of theft and other crimes. With nowhere to go, de facto camps sprung up, including one in a local Walmart parking lot. When areas within the burn scar began reopening to residents, those who returned clustered together in places such as the Magalia Community Church, in hopes of regaining some sense of community.
People were struggling. Yes, there was aid — from the federal government, from the state, from the nonprofits — but they needed it now, and it wasn’t always easy to get. Maybe it required paperwork that was now ash somewhere on their abandoned lots. Some, as Earley repeatedly heard, just weren’t emotionally ready to face listing, in detail, all the personal items they’d lost, a task necessary to file some claims. Others found themselves missing deadlines for aid that they never even knew existed until it was too late.
Brandy Connell, 41, tried to stay in Butte County after the fire, living in an RV donated by Habitat for Humanity with her two sons while applying for apartments in surrounding counties. But no property management companies responded to her, she said, and the “RV was leaking, and we were miserable.”
So they left, following a lead from a friend to an apartment in Texas. Her 64-year-old mother remains, living in an RV in Paradise.
“We feel out of the loop in San Antonio because we do not have access to the same assistance programs the other fire survivors have in Butte County,” Connell said.
Far from home, she turned to social media. After the fire, public and private groups for survivors began popping up on Facebook, promising a sense of community to those who had just lost their physical neighborhood, connecting them to those who could help them in some way. These groups became virtual bulletin boards, filled with personal stories, links to dozens of GoFundMe pages, information about aid programs, and requests for cash to fill up the gas tank. Many were now living far from their jobs and their kids’ schools, and something as simple as gas now seemed prohibitively expensive.
He created a crowd-sourced Google map, inviting his group members to share it far and wide with former Butte County residents to mark where they now lived. The map now shows survivors in more than 500 US cities, stretching from coast to coast, up to Alaska and over to Hawaii.
In April, a door-to-door survey cited by the California governor’s office found that Paradise, formerly home to more than 26,000 residents, now had about 2,000.
“After that, I have absolutely no clue”
Returning to Paradise wasn’t going to be easy. Erin’s family, like many others, didn’t have renter’s insurance before the fire, meaning no big check was coming to reimburse them for their losses. She had, she said, “literally nowhere to go.” She thought about staying away, but, she says, “I was pulled back here. I was pulled back here by the drive to rebuild this beautiful community that I lived in for so long.”
So she got some help, from her mother and “a bit” from FEMA. She posted, repeatedly, in one of those umpteen Facebook groups, asking for help with everything from purchasing new tires to replace the ones tossed from her car to finding an affordable trailer. Once she purchased one, she turned to Facebook again to find a place with the proper electrical hookups to park it.
She’s now staying in the Lime Saddle Campground, and though she has to make a 10-mile drive to the Magalia Community Church to do her laundry, the campground does have showers, and her mother and sister are now living in another mobile unit a few spots away.
“Honestly,” she said, “I am kind of falling in love with my little trailer.”
Erin’s mood shifted, and her words became punctuated with pauses and sighs. Because outside of her little trailer, the absence of friends and neighbors and community is stark, clear from the lack of cars on the road when you drive through town and from the sparse services that have reopened — doctor’s offices, chain stores, a few shops.
And her life in Lime Saddle, like the rest of her living situations over the past year, has an expiration date. FEMA funding is keeping the campground open to survivors, but after months of extending the deadline, that arrangement is ending. Erin must leave by the end of October.
“I’m really worried about where I’m going to go next,” she said.
It’s a familiar feeling for survivors still living in temporary housing.
“I was at the DMV last week for registration and to renew my license,” recounted Victoria Gann, a Paradise resident of 20 years. “The man at the counter asked me, ‘What is your address?’ I just sat there. I couldn’t actually answer the question. My address? Last week? Last month? This week? In a month?”
For now, she’s in one of the FEMA group sites that opened this summer after months of criticism from local officials who felt the agency wasn’t adequately addressing the housing needs of survivors.
In an email, a FEMA spokesperson said that the responsibility to house survivors did not fall solely on the federal government. “Although some disaster housing programs are federally-supported,” the spokesperson wrote, “they are state managed and locally executed. Therefore, planning for disaster housing must occur at all levels of government.”
But moving out of disaster housing has proven nearly impossible. Paradise released a Long Term Community Recovery Plan over the summer calling for a makeover from the ground up — new underground utilities, new evacuation plans, new fire station, new zoning, updated residential codes. It includes updated ordinances, like a requirement for “100 feet of defensible space,” meaning foliage must be far enough apart to no longer be considered a fire hazard.
All of this comes with costs — literal ones, as well as the slowdown in rebuilding that would stymie residents simply trying to come home.
As Erin put it, “I feel like people feel like they were pushed out of the town, you know? I mean, certain people are, because you don’t have the money to rebuild, you don’t have the resources.”
Brandy Connell, the mom of two currently living in Texas, wanted to stay. But the family was dropped by their insurance after the 2008 Humboldt Wildfire, and the costs are daunting, especially factoring in removing the damage from her family’s lot. “New water pipes have to be run,” she said, “‘because they melted underground and are contaminated with benzene; burned trees need to be removed.” Along with the actual rebuilding, “it’s overwhelming.”
Few others who have tried have made it through the process. It was July before Paradise had issued the first Certificate of Occupancy for a house rebuilt after the fire. By mid-October, the town had received nearly 400 building permit applications. Only nine houses have been rebuilt.
“So that everyone knows not to do it again”
For those still looking for additional aid, some of the resources during the early months have started to wind down. Deadlines to apply to agencies like the Red Cross have passed.
Alyssa Nolan-Cain is familiar with all of it. Eleven years ago, she lost her home in a wildfire. She too went through the phases of shock, anger, disappointment, and exhaustion as she started over again in Oroville, less than an hour’s drive from Paradise. So, when the Camp Fire hit so close to home, she was compelled to act.
In January, she started the Tiny Homes for Camp Fire Survivors initiative, putting together 200-square-foot units using skills she learned from YouTube videos and funds she raised through Facebook groups. She works out of a lot behind a closed-down Ford dealership in Oroville and relies on help from Butte County community members, including students from the nearby college and locals who swing by after nearby church services. She greets all of them warmly with a “Hey, brother” or “Hey, sister.”
Nolan-Cain has built eight homes, all for survivors she’s vetted and selected based on need, in Paradise, Concow, and other affected areas. Her waitlist of interested potential residents stretches into the hundreds.
That same need to do something is everywhere — in the community-penned newspapers stacked up in the reopened Paradise Starbucks, in Joe Earley’s speech to a somber crowd at the Chico Elks Lodge one September Sunday.
Earley told the audience of a needlepoint piece from his grandmother, an invaluable item he lost. He was emotional, making the moment revealing, and judging from the nods of many staring up at him, relatable.
Which, he reminded the crowd, was his job: “My purpose here, right now, especially, and in general, is to let people feel comfortable. Because they do need to make a claim with PG&E, that’s given. That shouldn’t be a question anymore.”
Days after the fire, Earley received an email from an attorney representing fire victims in the Bay Area in a lawsuit against PG&E (as early as February, the utility said it was “probable” that its wiring caused the spark). He wanted to know if Joe would be interested in joining his legal team to help represent Paradise residents in a mass tort case against the company.
Now, Earley is part of a larger effort to make PG&E pay. “As much as possible,” he said, “so that everyone knows not to do it again.”
Earley’s been part of a media blitz, starring in TV spots and holding town halls like the one in Chico to ensure people add their names to the case. The signup deadline is October 21, with a trial set for January. That will mean time to focus back on his own caseload, which includes more than a dozen Camp Fire-related deaths, and to cope with the sense of loss he’s been avoiding.
“I can put it off and, you know, focus on this, but I can also feel it eating away at me,” he explained. “So I know that there’s a day of reckoning coming.”
Later, leaning forward at his desk in his new office in Chico, with framed paintings and photos on the floor that he hadn’t had the heart to put up on the walls yet, Earley shifted the conversation back to the PG&E case.
“I don’t know if that’s going to be effective. But I have to believe that it is. If nothing else, that helps me get through the day.”
Signs of life in Paradise
On that smoky Saturday in September, Erin’s eyes flickered toward the open doorway over her left shoulder. She was working a shift at Nic’s, a restaurant preparing to open on Skyway Road, and with her coworkers buzzing in the adjacent room, she seemed anxious to help out. Before the fire, she worked in a pizza joint in town. She was looking forward to getting to chat up customers again; obviously, the money would help, too.
“We’re trying our hardest to rebuild,” she said. “We’re not just feeding off all these resources.”
With that, she headed back behind the counter in the main dining room.
A little over a week later, Nic’s would be filled with guests. Two days after opening, the restaurant would offer itself up as a refuge when, due to “increased fire risk,” PG&E shut power off to some customers in Butte County, including parts of Paradise. Nicki Jones, the restaurant’s owner, had prepared, installing a backup generator, along with a filter system, for those concerned about water quality.
Inside Nic’s, where the walls are decorated with shelves of wine and vintage photos of Paradise from decades past, it still smells new, and you can almost forget what’s right outside.
Across the street, there’s a burnt-out building, rendered indistinguishable by fire followed by months of rain, cold, and heat. Turn the corner, and there’s a stretch of empty, dug-out lots, punctuated with mailboxes or fences twisted by scorching temperatures — the only signs of the homes that once stood here.
Where a girl from Paradise might have had her first kiss and later marked the height, inch by inch, of her son on the wall. Where he wrote long letters to his friends and grew an impressively large record collection in the basement.
Where they waved hello every morning, passing each other in their cars as they pulled out of their gravel driveways on their way to work.
Now, with the power off and buildings gone, there’s just Erin and Nic’s, the rustle of the remaining trees, and the occasional construction vehicle barreling by, clanging across a grate in the street.
Colleen Hagerty is a freelance journalist based in California, with print and multimedia bylines for outlets including BBC News, USA Today, and LAist.
Mason Trinca is a documentary and editorial photographer based in California.
Author: Colleen Hagerty