Paradise regained: A year after the Camp Fire, a resilient town rebuilds

New homes are being built, businesses are reopening and residents are moving back a year after California's deadliest wildfire all but destroyed the town.
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Joyce and Jerry McLean unfurl a U.S. flag outside their new modular home in Paradise, California, which was recently moved in to replace their home that was destroyed by last year's Camp Fire. The McLeans' home was one of nearly 9,000 in Paradise alone that were destroyed in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. But the flag survived.Rich Pedroncelli / AP

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By Phil Helsel and Alex Johnson

PARADISE, Calif. — Doug Sloan remembers the silence.

After California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire raced through the Sierra Nevada foothills one year ago, all but destroying his hometown, everything went silent. No birds chirped. No car engines roared. No tree leaves rustled in the wind.

While evidence of the Camp Fire remains in the charred and blackened trees that dot the landscape, in the rubble of buildings not yet cleared and in store signs that lead to empty parking lots, residents and officials say they are working hard to rebuild this rural community 170 miles northeast of San Francisco.

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Nearly all the debris from the fire has been cleared from Paradise, which once had a population of 26,000, and the amount of debris hauled away is said to be the equivalent of four Golden Gate Bridges.

For Sloan's family, returning to Paradise was always a certainty.

"It was never a question that we were going to come back," said Sloan, 50, a police sergeant at Butte College in nearby Oroville.

Now a three-bedroom home is going up where his old house stood before the fire approached from two sides.

His wife, Tiffany, was born in Paradise, and he attended Paradise High School. They raised three children and fostered another 48 children there.

The Camp Fire ignited on Nov. 8, 2018, and by the time it was contained 17 days later, it had killed 85 people, laid waste to more than 240 square miles of Northern California forest and destroyed almost 19,000 homes, businesses and other structures.

Memorials marking the anniversary were held Friday, and 85 seconds of silence was observed, one for each of the victims.

The population of Paradise is now about 4,000, said Mayor Jody Jones, with many living in recreational vehicles. About 1,400 homes were spared, and the city has permitted 11 new homes for occupancy, Jones said.

Some businesses on Skyway Road, the main street through Paradise, have reopened with large signs outside proclaiming it.

"It looked like a war zone a year ago," Jones said. "Now, it is like night and day."

Potable water has been an issue, though, and remains unsafe to drink for some businesses and residences, but the Paradise Irrigation District expects to lift many remaining advisories by March.

Many residents acknowledge that the Paradise they once knew is gone for good and that a rebuilt town will be much smaller. Many of the thousands who fled the Camp Fire will likely never return.

"The Paradise of last November is lost," said Peggy Mattier, 55, who moved to Paradise from the San Francisco Bay Area eight months before the fire. "But I think a new Paradise is coming."

Mattier, whose home survived, plans to stay, and so does her sister, Flo Beauchemin, 66, who was in the process of buying a house in Paradise with her husband when the fire struck. The house remained intact and they later moved in.

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"The whole street behind me burned. Every house is gone," Mattier said.

Keith Means, 22, who lives in the neighboring community of Magalia, which also burned, said this week that the area feels empty. Firefighters saved his home, although the outside was burned.

"It's like a funeral," Means said, outside an AutoZone. "You remember everything that was alive, and it's all gone."

'It's just going to be a new town'

For some who are rebuilding, the decision wasn't clear cut. Alan and Lisa Waelbrock's home was destroyed.

"It was dust," Alan said, but they are almost ready to begin building a new house.

"What's going to prevent it from happening again?" Lisa Waelbrock asked. "I think if we had been retired, we strongly would have thought about moving somewhere else."

But they work in Chico, 20 minutes away, and their family lives in the area. They decided to rebuild because Paradise feels like home. They could walk out onto their back porch and breathe mountain air, hear crickets, frogs and birds and watch deer.

"We don't see that in Chico," Alan Waelbrock said.

Their new home will be built with fires in mind. Instead of a wood exterior, it will be concrete. The eaves will be sealed, sprinklers will be installed and the landscaping will be fire-resistant.

Sloan said he isn't worried about another Camp Fire.

"I think it's a one-in-a-lifetime event," he said. "And there's nothing else to burn."

He said he prefers to look at what Paradise will be like in five years rather than now.

"I think it will be better," Sloan said. "It's just going to be a new town."

In football, from uncertainty to success

It's also unknown whether the blaze will again deny the Paradise High School football team a chance to appear in the playoffs.

The Bobcats made the playoffs last year, but the Camp Fire forced the team to cancel the season, and they forfeited their playoff opener. This year, officials weren't even sure there would be a season because it was unclear whether there would be enough players.

Members of the Paradise High School football team stand for the playing of the national anthem before their game against Williams High School in Paradise, Calif. on Aug. 23, 2019.Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

Last Friday, the Bobcats completed an undefeated season, winning all 10 games. But because so many pupils had relocated, Paradise High School dropped to a lower classification and cobbled together an independent schedule, unable to join a conference.

Only three of the team's 48 members still live in Paradise, said Anne Stearns, athletic director of the Paradise Unified School District. Some lost their homes and are staying in surrounding communities, like Chico and Magalia.

In the Bobcats' division, playoff teams aren't chosen just on their records but by a complicated points system, a big part of which is based on conference standings. As an independent, Paradise tallied no conference points.

Eight teams make the playoffs. The Bobcats are ranked ninth. There's hope they can still qualify, if certain teams lose and if division officials decide to make a special exception, but that's a long shot.

"Last year, because of the fire, we weren't able to go to the playoffs," Stearns said this week. "And for the fire to stop us again from going to the playoffs — I mean, it can't happen. It just can't."

Even if it does happen, the Bobcats' season will have been a smashing success. The community rallied around the depleted team, which in turn helped Paradise proclaim to the world that it is still here and that it is still strong.

Trisha and Mark Floyd, whose son plays for the Bobcats, lost their home in the fire. Last Friday, they were cheering in the stands as Paradise beat Enterprise High School, 48-26, to complete its perfect season.

"It's emotional," Trisha Floyd told NBC affiliate KCRA of Sacramento during a break in the action. "I'm really proud to be here and to have my son on this team. We've been through a lot.

"With all the anxiety from coming up here and seeing the devastation, this is the one place that feels normal — coming here and being with all the people that we hold dear to our hearts," she said. "It's amazing."

'Rebuilding the Ridge'

There will likely be more construction in Paradise. Jones, the mayor, said the city has received 450 applications for building permits and about 300 have been issued. They are on track to receive 500 applications by year's end, she said.

Driving on Skyway Road into Paradise, a rocky, tree-dappled canyon plunges to the north, and a sign reading "Rebuilding the Ridge" welcomes travelers, followed by others with slogans like "We're in this together," "Don't stop believing" and "We are Ridge strong."

Vehicles pass a sign welcoming people to Paradise, California, on Tuesday. The sign also displays the slogan "Rebuilding The Ridge," which has become the community's rallying cry since the Camp Fire devastated the area a year ago.Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Almost 200 businesses are open in Paradise and surrounding communities, said Monica Nolan, executive director of the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

Yet the town still faces challenges. School district enrollment is down about 50 percent, and the Paradise Irrigation District has lost about 90 percent of its rate-payers, forcing it to explore other business models. Clearing dead and dying trees remains an issue.

But at a community update meeting Tuesday attended by some 200 people, Nolan bristled at the "language of fear and destruction" that she said the media often uses to describe Paradise.

"It's beyond painful and not at all funny to hear that Paradise was lost. Paradise was never lost. The ridge was not obliterated," she said. The rest of her words could scarcely be heard because of all the clapping.

"We are a strong community of pioneers who look after one another," she said before eliciting an even more enthusiastic response by borrowing a line from Mark Twain:

"Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Phil Helsel reported from Paradise, Alex Johnson from Los Angeles.