For these California fire survivors, hope grows amid the ashes of Paradise
Months after the state’s most destructive wildfire killed 85 people and leveled Paradise, Calif., many former residents find the thought of returning to the town unbearable. But others, whose homes escaped destruction, have come back to a life of su
Inside the Brennans’ house on the northern edge of town, it’s almost like the fire never happened.
There’s electricity, filtered water and satellite TV. The mail comes every day but Sunday, and the garbage is picked up every week.
But when family members look out the window at a neighborhood of charred rubble and twisted metal, they’re sometimes overcome by a profound loneliness.
“I feel like I’ve been left behind,” said Elaine Brennan.
Months after California’s most devastating wildfire killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise, many former residents find the thought of returning here unbearable. But others, whose homes escaped destruction, have come back to a life of surreal contrasts.
Neighborhoods devoid of residents now bustle with the activity of workers felling blackened trees, hauling away debris and replacing downed power lines. In the town’s commercial district, businesses have reopened, but residents are surprised to encounter other shoppers amid deserted aisles.
The stories of those who are returning to Paradise, those who would like to return and those who refuse to return are complicated by income, age and mental health.
A number of former residents are too traumatized to set foot in Paradise and have settled elsewhere. There are those who would like to use their insurance payouts to stay, but can’t secure housing in Butte County’s fiercely competitive market. Many retirees have decided they don’t want to spend what’s left of their golden years rebuilding a home.
Others returned to Paradise very soon after the fire, parking RVs and trailers in burned-out lots. For many who wanted to stay in the area but couldn’t find housing, this was their only option.
Four-fifths of Paradise’s housing stock was destroyed by the Camp fire, and the Brennans’ taupe country-style home is among the few in their neighborhood that survived.
The decision to move back, however, wasn’t an easy one for the family.
Josh Brennan, a 45-year-old state game warden, couldn’t wait to return to the property and the babbling brook where daughters Rachael, 14, and Danielle, 9, would catch crawfish and trout in the warmer months.
Elaine Brennan, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave their rental in Chico. The 46-year-old state recycling specialist was not ready to live among the ruins of her community. Give it a year, her husband said.
During those first days back home at the end of January, Elaine would find herself dumbstruck by their luck, and then by guilt, as she performed the most ordinary tasks. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” she’d think as she pulled a frying pan out of the cupboard. Almost everyone she knew had lost their kitchens.
Without friends and family nearby, the Brennans’ quiet life in Paradise has become even quieter, yet more hectic. Josh and Elaine spend much of their day battling with their home insurance company, which has yet to reimburse them for the $30,000 they spent to have their place professionally cleaned. Before doing so, their home was so saturated with the smell of smoke that they couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside without suffering headaches and sore throats.
Once I rebuild and sell this place, I’m out of here. I’m going to travel the world.
Not knowing what would become of the education system in the town that once had 27,000 residents, the couple enrolled their girls in Chico schools in December. It used to take Josh five minutes total to drive them to and from school. Now it takes three hours.
The girls are doing surprisingly well, their parents say. But sometimes, when the family is driving through the 18-square-mile town, the kids will abruptly go silent. They’ve noticed something — the Fosters Freeze, gone. The street where Grandma’s house once stood.
Elaine finds herself on the brink of tears in these moments, but she holds them back. She doesn’t want the girls to see her upset. She wants their lives to feel as normal as possible.
The Brennans know that they are the lucky ones, in spite of everything.
They are reminded of this every time they see someone sifting through debris, or spot an RV parked on a burned-out lot.
At first, the town allowed residents to live in temporary dwellings on their fire-scarred properties. Then officials passed an ordinance in early February that reversed the decision, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that federal aid could be rescinded if Paradise continued to allow people to live on toxic land.
This is home, even with the wreckage.
Even still, some continue to live out of motor homes on uncleared lots, including 49-year-old Michael Baca. On a recent Thursday night, Baca brought his twin 3-year-olds home to his property, where three RVs and heaps of rubble sit.
As the temperature dropped into the 30s, Baca cranked a red generator outside his RV. A giant teddy bear hung from the vehicle’s awning.
The girls, with their curly red hair done up in pigtails, took turns painting Baca’s fingernails at the RV’s dinette booth. His ex-wife also lost her home in the fire and will soon move the twins to Utah. Baca, a handyman, said he is torn. Part of him wants to stay in Paradise to see it reborn. He might get his hazmat certification at Butte College, which would allow him to help with the cleanup.
But another part of him wants to restart his life as a truck driver. He’d get to see his girls more often that way.
For now, living in the RV makes the most financial sense for Baca. He said he’s received no notice to vacate and only learned of the town’s anti-motor-home ordinance through news reports.
“This is home,” he said, “even with the wreckage.”
Locals say life in Paradise began to brighten in mid-February, when dozens of crews began clearing lots as part of the $2-billion cleanup effort paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state. Trailer trucks and street sweepers barreled down the town’s main thoroughfare, Skyway, from sunup to sundown, past the parade of handmade signs that proclaim “The best is yet to come” and “You are not forgotten.”
Hubs of civic life have returned, too. The post office, the playhouse, Paradise Little League. A couple of churches, including Paradise Lutheran, where the Brennans worship.
Businesses have reopened as well. There are two grocery stores and three drugstores: a Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS. Steve’s Music and Paradise Bikes are up and running, as are a few antique shops, where residents shop for dinnerware and keepsakes that resemble those they lost.
The Brennans make a point of buying local, now that they can. When Elaine shops at Save Mart up the street, the few others drifting through the aisles seem eager to look her in the eye and smile. She assumes that they, too, are hoping to run into someone they recognize.
It’s worth more than money to see all my friends coming back.
Lok Keobouahom, owner of Sophia’s Thai Cuisine
Lok and Khek Keobouahom also lost their home in the fire, so they understand this need to connect. It’s why they decided to reopen their restaurant, Sophia’s Thai Cuisine, in early February. “We wanted to give the community some comfort,” Lok said during a recent lunch rush.
By virtue of being the only open restaurant in town, Sophia’s has become a gathering place for cleanup crews and displaced residents. Some drive from as far as Sacramento to eat in the familiar eatery, its wood-paneled walls decorated with family photos. Men in hard hats and yellow vests hunker over steaming bowls of curry. Lok brings them bottled water to go with their food; much of the town’s water supply is still contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen used in the production of gasoline and plastic.
“Welcome home! Sit anywhere you want,” Lok called out as Jim and Janelle Miller walked into the restaurant.
The Millers, both in their mid-60s, moved back to their home in Paradise on Christmas Day. Now they are trying to sell it. There is nothing to keep them here any longer, they said. No kids, no friends. Their church, Paradise Seventh-day Adventist, burned down. They will probably move to Arizona or Oregon.
“It feels like time,” Janelle said.
Elaine Brennan understands the impulse to cut and run, even though her family has made the choice to stick it out. It seems that half of her friends can’t wait to come back to rebuild, while the other half — even some with standing homes — fear future fires and contaminated land.
“I watched another neighbor in Paradise move away today,” she posted on Facebook recently. “Feeling more lonely each day.”
Officials estimate that it will take about a year to clear all the burned lots, but the timeline for rebuilding is uncertain. Paradise issued around 30 building permits a year before the fire. Mayor Jody Jones said the town plans to use grant funds to hire a firm that will provide house plan checkers and building inspectors.
Outsiders often ask residents, why? Why would anyone want to return to Paradise after what happened there?
No one asks people in Los Angeles why they live there, they respond, even with the threat of earthquakes. Or Florida with its hurricanes, or Kansas with its tornadoes.
If you still don’t understand, residents say, visit Paradise Lake, the emerald reservoir ringed with towering Ponderosa pines. Drive out to North Table Mountain in nearby Oroville, lush with purple owl’s clover and poppies this time of year. Look up at the night sky, brimming with stars.
It’s a place where a young family like the Brennans, operating on two state employee salaries, could afford to buy a 2,900-square-foot house.
And then there is the explanation that defeats all reason: Paradise is home.
“We’re here,” Elaine Brennan said. “And it’s OK.”
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