Rain was falling as evacuees returned to their beloved town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Traffic slowed as drivers beheld the devastation.
Five weeks earlier, an inferno swept through these wooded neighborhoods, exacting a terrible toll. Of the 86 people killed in the Camp fire, most lived here. Of the nearly 14,000 homes burned, 12,000 were here. Ninety percent of the town was lost, officials say.
Block after block, homes sit crumbled atop foundations and footings, ashy-white landmarks in a landscape of charred trees and soot-blackened soil.
The business districts fared no better, a grim catalog of destruction: restaurants collapsed around tables and chairs, a supermarket reduced to shelving and rubble, a liquor store with rows of shattered fifths, an antique mart where the face of a porcelain doll stares at the open sky.
Residents and business owners say they will return and rebuild — Paradise Strong — and an army of utility workers has already swept through the city, felling trees, raising power poles, and stringing utilities.
But the first reflex in the face of catastrophe is easy: hard work and resolve, as much a part of the American character as the impulse to raise a flag over the most unrecognizable ruins.
But what comes next?
Paradise wonders. It is a city of many unanswered questions, not the least of which is how the future can be imagined when the past and present have been so thoroughly erased.
The week before Christmas, the maintenance staff at Paradise Alliance Church was preparing for the commencement of services.
A remediation crew from Oklahoma, wielding vacuums, soot sponges and power washers, had scrubbed down the facility, which was untouched by the flames but tainted by smoke. Residents say there are two primary businesses in Paradise — religion and mini-storage — and Paradise Alliance is the largest church in a faithful city with nearly 30 Christian congregations.
Not long after the fire, church leadership sent out a survey to 3,300 families in the database. Only 402 replied, a loss of 80%.
As imprecise as the survey is, the results are the first indication of what Paradise will look like in the coming months. Much as the fire has diminished the congregation and jeopardized the business operations of the church, which depends upon the support of its members, the effect on local businesses and government will probably be the same.
“I wish I could see the future,” said Tim Bolin, executive pastor of Paradise Alliance Church. “But that’s the nature of faith.”
Built on the promise of gold and the certainty of lumber, Paradise got its start in the 1850s. In 1903, a railroad ran through the settlement and connected the Diamond Match Co., in the Sacramento Valley, with a timber mill 31 miles away. With ample water and good soil, the community attracted farmers who were intent on creating an apple empire.
But as the 20th century ended, agriculture had given way to real estate, and only one of 35 original orchards remains. By the time a housing boom took off in the 1970s, Paradise had a reputation among retirees for its affordability and a 10-bed sanitarium that had grown into a 100-bed hospital.
In 2001, 62% of Paradise was retirement age. However, that percentage dropped to 25% as the city evolved into a bedroom community for neighboring Chico.
With a population slightly larger than South Pasadena, Paradise offered residents 19 square miles of homespun identity surrounded by wilderness.
Residents proudly told out-of-towners that they lived in Paradise. They went to church and came out for Johnny Appleseed Days, the state’s oldest harvest festival where 1,000 pies were baked with apples from Noble Orchard, the sole remaining grower.
“Besides the people, there are three things that made Paradise special to me,” said John Singler, 48, who has been a firefighter in the town for 26 years. “One, the trees. Two, the Feather River Hospital. And three, the Paradise Irrigation District.”
The water in Paradise, he said, once tasted like a bubbling stream.
But with an estimated 50,000 trees scheduled to be cut down, the severely damaged hospital closed until 2020 and the irrigation district still trying to assess damage to its pipes, what once were the givens for day-to-day life in Paradise are now its unknowns.
Before the Camp fire, Paradise’s economy had the strength and diversity of a suburban shopping mall with its anchor stores — the hospital, Safeway, Kmart — and smaller shops providing more specialized services: tattoos, beauty supplies, hobbies, antiques. Essential services ensured the success of incidental services.
With all that gone, investors and homeowners are eyeing one another to see who will take the first step.
“It is a chicken-and-the-egg type of thing,” said Monica Nolan, executive director of the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce. “Will businesses come first and residents follow, or will residents come first and businesses follow?”
With Safeway burned down and Kmart’s parent company, Sears, in bankruptcy, Nolan holds out hope for the return of Ace Hardware. She also cites Joy Lyns Candies as a possible comeback success: It was lost to the fire, but the owners, she said, have plans to open a factory in Chico to continue making its beer brittle with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
“Our businesses will need to be flexible, if not acrobatic, to survive,” Nolan said.
Until then, the town is turning to the government for support. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already distributed $5 million, and more is on the way.
Paradise is now largely dependent upon FEMA and the state’s office of emergency services. But that money, said town manager Lauren Gill, is only for the reimbursement of damage.
To cover operating expenses, Paradise has asked state and federal legislators for $13 million annually for 10 years. The money would help stabilize revenues for the city’s 70 employees and allow for the additional hires needed during the rebuilding process.
For a city that is “conservative, independent and filled with people who are not used to asking for a handout,” Gill said the idea of a bailout goes against popular sentiment.
“Paradise,” Gill said, putting her hands together, “is a very small town and we’re not used to — what’s the word? — we don’t receive much money. People leave us alone, and we do well with our little town, our little community. We think of ourselves as small and mighty, and now we need that help.”
Nearly 50% of the city’s general fund — $5 million — goes to the Paradise Police Department, and after the fire, Chief Eric Reinbold has been operating in the dark.
“We have no notion of what our 2019 budget will look like,” he said.
Even as he anticipates serving up to 10,000 people — contractors, residents of Paradise and nearby Magalia, who travel through the city — he knows it will be difficult to justify staffing as it was before the blaze.
Reinbold, 35, who lost his home, is trying to avoid the question of downsizing among the 20 sworn officers. He expects some attrition, though, especially among younger officers who might find policing this hollowed-out town too slow.
Cutbacks have already claimed four line personnel with the Paradise Fire Department, which is managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. According to Singler, they were reassigned to other battalions in the state, and one of the city’s two fire stations has temporarily closed.
But providing municipal services is not the same as staying in business.
With annual revenue of $230 million, the Feather River Hospital, owned by Adventist Health, contributed 30% of Paradise’s economy and was the town’s largest employer with a staff of 1,300. Today only an off-site primary care and specialty clinic is operational.
“We’re committed to this community,” said Ryan Ashlock, vice president of finance. “We will rebuild and put into place the medical facilities that the community needs.”
But what the community needs depends on the size of the community. For now, staff has been guaranteed salaries through Feb. 5, and they are also being offered positions at other Adventist Health facilities.
The Paradise Irrigation District does not have these options. Unlike larger utilities that can spread costs over a broad customer base, the water district serves only Paradise. Before the fire, it had 10,500 meters in city; 1,500 meters are expected to be restored.
“We operate on $8 million annually, and 95% of that came from water usage and water rates from customers,” said Kevin Phillips, assistant district manager.
Phillips is asking the state to cover that amount until the district finds a balance between services and revenues.
“We just don’t know what the bottom is,” he said.
By destroying the city, the Camp fire has given Paradise a second chance.
In its evolution from settlement to city, Paradise grew in a haphazard manner. Its roads have been described as loops and lollipops, so convoluted that residents speak of a mailman from the 1960s who is still lost in some remote neighborhood.
This tangle is said to have contributed to the difficulty evacuating and the loss of life.
“We are looking at improving streets and rights-of-way with wider roads and more connections, more through-ways,” Gill said.
Re-imagining Paradise will require not only addressing the city’s rugged topography but also changing the laissez-faire attitude of its businesses and residents.
In the 1970s, residents recalled the City Council over an ordinance that would have developed sewers. Today, Paradise is said to be the largest city west of the Mississippi whose residents rely on individual septic systems for wastewater removal.
When the water district went to voters in 2015 to increase rates by 30% — approximated $6 per household — two members of the board were recalled, and a third was voted out.
And not until this year were business licenses required; local owners had long fought paying the city fee.
“The people who moved here liked a town with a hands-off approach to government, and they wanted it to stay that way,” Phillips said. “Will that change or not? Will the status quo — a hands-off approach — prevail, or will planning with codes and standards be put into place to fix the problems inherent in the area?”
Tension has already emerged in public forums.
At a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Jody Jones found herself criticized by residents who blame her for the evacuation chaos on Nov. 8, the death toll and an ongoing lack of outreach.
“Congratulations on being elected mayor again, but please do something different,” resident Michael Orr said during public comments. Orr called on Jones to resign.
According to water manager Phillips, Paradise is a town divided between a loud minority and a silent majority, between moderate and extreme conservatives.
The question for town manager Gill is whether political differences can be resolved in order to put Paradise back together.
Potholes don’t care about your politics, she said. “They just need to be fixed.”
With evacuation orders lifted, some residents are trying to imagine what the future — beyond years of exile — might look like.
Bolin, the Paradise Alliance Church pastor, hopes that the problems that the city once had — namely, crime and drugs — will be eliminated, and Paradise will become a place for young families and children.
“Paradise was the end of the road, and Paradise needs to be a destination,” he said.
Some predict Paradise will turn into a more upscale, affluent community as its retirees sell to speculators, more prepared for the time and expense it takes to rebuild.
“So we might see the population shift to more young professional families,” Gill said.
Firefighter Singler, who lost his home in the blaze, hopes that the new Paradise will see “a return of the spirit of the mountain people”: down home, self-reliant and helpful toward neighbors.
“We lost that,” he said. “We had gotten busy like the rest of the nation.”
Until then, Paradise is a cacophony of chain saws and large trucks, of neighbors connecting over tears and hugs and picking through the remains.
This is how it begins, a slow reconciliation to the capriciousness of life.
How it ends, no one knows.