Paradise’s Road to Recovery

Nearly five years on from devastating Camp Fire, town is rebuilding but still faces a long road ahead

PUBLISHED AUG 20, 2023 3:29 P.M.
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Before: The Camp Fire destroyed 90 percent of the homes in Paradise in November 2018.

Before: The Camp Fire destroyed 90 percent of the homes in Paradise in November 2018.   Courtesy Cal OES

It’s been hard for Bonnie South to watch the news coming out of Maui.

South, 67, is a bartender at Barney O’Rourke’s, a Paradise restaurant that reopened last November after burning down in the Camp Fire almost five years ago. Like many people in town, South lost her home in the fire and hasn’t been able to rebuild. Recently, her anxiety has spiked due to the Hawaiian wildfires, which destroyed most of the town of Lahaina.

“I have to quit watching it,” South said as she served patrons just before lunchtime on a recent Wednesday. “It came on this morning. It’s like, ‘Oh, no, no no.’ I went and turned it off.”

Paradise, and the people who live or work there, endured the deadliest wildfire in California history. But if the experience of Paradise and its people is any testament, the people in Maui now suffering similar fates face a long road to recovery.

Getting Out of Paradise

Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter was given this Cal Fire jacket by a firefighter on Nov. 8, 2018.

Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter keeps a stained Cal Fire jacket on the wall of his Paradise office. It’s from a person who helped Teeter on the worst day of his town’s history.

It was the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, when residents began getting orders to evacuate shortly after a fire started under a Pacific Gas and Electric Company transmission line in Pulga, roughly 10 miles to the east. Winds quickly swept the fire toward Paradise, which had around 27,000 residents at the time.

After leaving his Pearson Road home in his car, Teeter made it about a quarter-mile before traffic came to a standstill. Teeter decided to hike back to his home, thinking he could maybe grab his 450cc dirt bike, which would allow him to travel off-road. He made it a couple hundred yards before realizing this was a bad idea.

He knocked on the window of a vehicle, which turned out to belong to a Cal Fire firefighter evacuating in his private car. Teeter got in, and the firefighter soon pulled into a field to begin directing traffic. The firefighter gave Teeter the jacket to offer him protection from the elements—and made him look official enough to help direct traffic.

“I think what sticks with me the most is no matter what your best plans may be, government-wise, with evacuations, there’s always that one scenario which you really didn’t plan on,” Teeter said.

Retired grocery clerk and avid flyfisherman Tom Peppas initially didn’t think much of it after getting orders to evacuate his Neal Road home. Peppas, who’s now 76, moved to Paradise in 1963, living much of his life in the heavily forested town, where the threat of fire was so common it didn’t always register.

“We’ve all been evacuated out of here before and we all came back, so we’re used to coming back,” Peppas said as he worked in front of the new house he and his wife have now spent two Christmases in. “I really wished I would have grabbed less underwear and socks and more important things.”

Stories of Paradise residents losing most or all of their belongings are depressingly common. Rose Tryon, now vice mayor of Paradise, had just enough time to grab her two dogs and cat before fleeing her home that the fire subsequently destroyed.

Steve Crowder, another member of the town’s council, also lost his home in the Camp Fire, as well as his business.

“I had the clothes on my back and the car my wife was driving when she left town and our two Schnauzers and that was it,” Crowder said.

NPR reported in 2019 that about 90 percent of Paradise’s buildings were destroyed. Those structures that somehow made it through the blaze were the fortunate ones, places like Skyway Antique Mall, where emergency workers saved inventory by moving it from a room with a hole in the roof and placing plastic tarps over to protect it from rain.

Several businesses across the street from Skyway Antique Mall were destroyed.

The antique shop sits on what used to be a packed main drag into town.

“Across the way there, that used to be all businesses,” Skyway Antique Mall owner Bille Estrada said as she stood near the front windows of her business. “There was a furniture store, a karate shop, a clothing shop, two little different restaurants.”

Now, those are just vacant lots, still to be rebuilt.

Coming Back to Paradise

A town sign for Paradise shows its population from 2010. That number now stands at around 9,000.

A sign at the town limits of Paradise put its population at 26,076 residents, which is about the number of people it had at the time of the 2010 U.S. census. It’s not completely clear why the sign hasn’t been replaced, though people like Teeter don’t mind.

“I guess I like it to stay the way it was as a reminder of, ‘Hey, this is where we were,’” Teeter said.

Paradise’s population would dip to just 4,764 residents as of the 2020 census and is now around 9,000 according to local officials.

There have been some people who’ve returned, such as Barney O’Rourke’s worker Dani Palmer, 30, who moved to Idaho for a time after the fire before deciding she wanted her two children to be close to family back in the Paradise area. The shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic and Paradise’s comparatively low real estate costs could be bringing new residents in, too.

From left: Bonnie South and Dani Palmer work at Barney O’Rourke’s.

Still, various factors appear to still be keeping many people from returning, even if they maintain ownership of the now-vacant parcels of land.

There’s the trauma people suffered, even in nearby cities such as Chico where the air was so horrible it was like “midnight at noon,” said Molly Shannon, an employee of Skyway Antique Mall.

“To this day, when I get up and walk out on my front porch, and smell the fire, someone barbecuing, there’s that clench of fear when you smell the smoke and wonder: Is it fire?” Shannon said.

Peppas and his wife had the foresight to keep making property insurance payments while they lived in a 32-foot trailer waiting to rebuild their home. But many others in town either lacked insurance or didn’t have sufficient coverage to meet their rebuilding costs. Even Peppas had to do much of his landscaping himself.

Paradise resident Tom Peppas rebuilt his home after the Camp Fire.

Others have lost their coverage since the fire, with insurers growing increasingly hesitant to extend policies in places like Paradise or other parts of California that remain in danger of fires.

It’s not just insurers who’ve been loath to pay Paradise residents. PG&E, which received 84 manslaughter convictions in the wake of the Camp Fire, agreed to a landmark $1 billion settlement in June 2019, with $270 million slated for people in Paradise. But settlement money has been slow to arrive.

ABC 10 reported in March that 15,000 victims of different PG&E disasters had yet to receive a penny and that those who had gotten money had received just 60 percent of their claims for damages. Some people received stock shares in lieu of cash from the utility, which went through bankruptcy following the Camp Fire.

Driving through Paradise, it’s common now to see both new homes and lots with graded soil awaiting construction. Crowder said there are currently around 1,500 active building permits in town. Plenty of vacant lots remain, though. South, who sells real estate on the side of her duties at Barney O’Rourke’s, said there were 205 vacant lots as of Aug. 15.

“Every lot that I’ve sold, nobody’s lived—nobody lives here,” South said. “It’s all out-of-staters.”

The Road Ahead

Magalia Community Church continues to operate a food pantry for Camp Fire victims. 

In the wake of the Camp Fire, residents of Paradise and nearby communities like Magalia were helped by an assortment of organizations. These ranged from giants like FEMA and the United Way to a variety of local faith-based groups.

Magalia Community Church still operates a food pantry for those who need it. Asked how much of the demand was from people facing unrelated economic hardships or those still recovering from the fire, associate pastor Laura McLane said that “the biggest majority is still the people from the Camp Fire.”

That said, there is a heartening resolve and resilience from those who’ve either stuck around or come back. Tryon said that the council held a special meeting on Thursday where one of the items it discussed was sending a letter of support to the people of Maui, saying that if they wanted to reach out, they’d be glad to hear from them.

“We will be more than glad to help them in any way that we can,” Tryon said.

Crowder said that the California Office of Emergency Services had called him Saturday and asked if he’d be willing to talk to elected officials or residents in Hawaii. He told them he absolutely would be willing.

“Whether it’s by Zoom or in person, I don’t know, I’ll do whatever and just tell them that we are proof that you can recover from this,” Crowder said.

But being supportive also means being realistic.

“We’re just really focused on rebuilding,” Tryon said. “And it just—it takes time.”

Crowder has similar thoughts.

“We’re gonna be recovering for the next 20-25 years,” he said.

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