It took 17 days to fully contain what became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. This was the Camp Fire that started Nov. 8, 2018. It decimated most of Paradise and forever changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
My mother was one of those people. The home she was living in in Paradise was reduced to ash. She escaped with her life (more than 80 people died), her dog and a few mementos.
Paradise at the time had a population of about 27,000 people. The fire wiped out 14,000 residences.
With the fires burning elsewhere in California this fall, along with the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire just days away, it is an emotional time for so many.
I can’t begin to understand what it was like for my mom driving during the day with the sky so dark it was more like night. That’s not to say we haven’t talked, that I haven’t visited her. It’s just that with something like this one would have to walk in those moccasins, as she would say, to truly understand. It’s an understanding she wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Mom had been evacuated from Paradise in years past, only to return. She, like so many others, assumed they would return again to an unscathed home.
Not this time.
She says she had time to grab more things. But did she really? Would the roads have been worse? Might something have happened?
To say what people lose in a fire is just things is true. But they are that person’s things. And some things can’t be replaced. Shopping isn’t fun anymore for her. It’s having to replace yet something else she lost. It’s as simple as being with her a month ago and she didn’t have an ice cream scoop. We got her one. It’s as complex as things of my deceased dad’s being gone forever.
Several ceramic and metal items were salvageable from my mom’s place. While it’s something, it’s not much. She has a couple “fire” pieces in her new kitchen. They are up high, almost out of sight. Yet, depending on how one looks at them, they are also prominent in the kitchen. It all depends on one’s perspective.
Fortunately, I have a sister in Chico and one in Redding – both who have been there to help with the minutia, both who I continue to thank for doing so much for our mom. Mom immediately stayed at my sister’s in Chico. Then when it was confirmed her place burned, it was time to think where to go next. She went to Redding, to a senior facility. At 85 she realized she was too young in mind and physical ability to be there, along with some other reasons. Now she is in Chico – close to her friends from Paradise, in a town where she has more connections.
When I was visiting her in October we went to Paradise. This was my first time since the fire. I had seen plenty of pictures in the news and from family. I was prepared for the worst, but what I saw was resilience. That is the word that came to mind. It seems so appropriate that Sierra Nevada Brewing Company created a beer called Resilience as a way to make money for Paradise fire relief. Resilience is what I saw in the businesses that have reopened, in the people who are moving back, the new construction.
This isn’t to say the town is back. It’s not. The water isn’t drinkable because many of the pipes were plastic and those toxins then got into the aquifer, tainting the wells. Other infrastructure needs are a concern. The hospital looks intact, but is cordoned off with a chain link fence. Its future still undetermined.
While there is still so much to be done to make Paradise whole again, the people are also in need of becoming whole again. Time will help. So will talking. So will understanding that a tragedy like this is not something someone just gets over. It will forever be with them; it has forever changed them. Their resilience, though, is something to admire and learn from.