The Aftermath: A Community Scattered
by Michael Orr
On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire engulfed the town of Paradise, California and several nearby smaller-communities. The wind-driven fire left more than 11,000 homes in ashes and took the lives of at least 85 people. Ninety-five percent of Paradise was wiped off the map in a matter of hours. After taking Paradise the fire burned for another 16 days, scorching 153,336 acres, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history by far. Fast forward to 2020 and we now have the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex fires scorching nearly a million acres and displacing over 100,000 people from their homes.
During the chaotic evacuation from the Camp Fire, more than 30,000 residents of the area made their way off the Ridge, despite the clogged roads and roaring flames, and flooded into nearby towns of Chico, Oroville, and Durham. Some abandoning their vehicles on the side of the road and jumping into the next car or truck ahead of them. It would be more than six weeks before Paradise residents were allowed back into town to assess the damage. The level of destruction they found has been likened to Hiroshima.
At the six-month mark, the first new construction of a handful of houses had begun, more than two-thirds of the properties were still awaiting cleanup and clearing of the toxic remnants. The water system was contaminated with benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and will take years to resolve. An estimated 1,200 people (out of 26,000 pre-fire Paradise residents) had moved back to town. Though I have heard many, whose homes survived, wish they had burned. For without significant help from their insurance company or FEMA they have had little choice but to move back and live in a constant reminder of that horrific day, with scorched piles of ash where their neighbors once lived.
So where are the survivors a year later?
- More than 1,000 were still homeless.
- An estimated 10,000 were living in campers, trailers, and RVs.
- Approximately 5,000 were able to buy or rent homes nearby in Butte, Glenn, and Tehama counties.
The remaining 10,000 residents relocated to more than 270 cities in at least 31 states. From Hawaii to Maine, former residents of Paradise found new places to sink their roots and begin their personal recoveries. Many separated, due to the massive housing shortages in the area, adding loss of family to the long list of types of grief to be dealt with. My family fell into that category—I settled in Idaho along with about 25 other families, but my wife and son were still in Northern California, staying with friends, so my son can finish first grade with the kids he grew up with before he has to make yet another life change and relocate again. We were separated for nearly a year. The emotional toll mounted for many of us as a result of not being settled into a new permanent situation. A year later, the “new normal” hadn’t yet appeared.
What was once a very close-knit community scattered to the four winds in just 190 days. Sure, some of those who left will go back some day, but many more will simply begin their lives anew somewhere else, perhaps where you live. They will be your neighbors. They will bring their sense of community to your town. They bring an interesting mix of toughness, resilience, and emotional baggage with them. They went through an unimaginable event, so there is bound to be an enduring emotional toll. So, if you meet them, reach out in friendship to these survivors. For they are survivors, and many of them recoil at being called a victim.
There are a few local Facebook groups, which allows a significant percentage of the population to stay somewhat connected, including one with over 16,500 members. But for me, Paradise wasn’t a place, it was a true community, a group of people—one that will never be the same.
In 2020, new fires wreak more havoc. Thousands more people will become homeless, hundreds of thousands of acres will be destroyed. First responders and survivors will persevere through this while also battling the pandemic. And yet again, we will all find our “new normal” on the other side.
Photo credit Andre Sebastian @andreonbrand (Los Angeles CA).
Michael J. Orr is a #1 Bestselling Author, Freelance Writer, Speaker, and Entrepreneur based in Southern Idaho. His new book, KILL the Bucket List: Start Living Your Dreams is now available. He also wrote the #1 Best Seller, BURN SCAR (under the pseudonym T.J. Tao).